“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”
Nelson Mandela

While I have a minor public profile in South Africa, to Nelson Mandela I was a stranger, that’s what made my meeting with him so extraordinary. A client invited me to attend a presentation he was giving in Johannesburg. When the formalities were over Madiba walked into the audience and began shaking hands not with the dignitaries up front but with the cleaners at the back. This is not what most people with a lot of status are inclined to do.

Attraction to status

Studies shows that people with high status pay less attention to people with low. This can be demonstrated in a five-minute conversation. The person with higher status demonstrates fewer signals of interest such as nodding, laughing, listening and even eye contact. Higher status people are also more likely to interrupt or look away from the other person. That’s what we mean when we say he “looked down on me” or worse “he looked right through me.”

Those with high status are usually not deliberately being rude; their dismissive behaviour is mostly unconscious. It may not be nice but it is an evolutionary instinct. To survive and thrive we depend on our relationships. High status people have more material favors and opportunities to give us. That’s why we tend to be more attracted to them and that’s where Nelson Mandela was different.

Madiba’s ESP

Standing at the back with the cleaners I was one of the first to have a moment with the father of our nation. This was no perfunctory shake of the hand. Like everyone, for a few moments Madiba made me feel like the center of his world. How did he do it? Nelson Mandela was a master of what I call ESP. When you were with him he created this deep, almost extrasensory perception of connection to him. You know how you can be in the room but not be in the room? Nelson Mandela was in the room. Technically, ESP boils down to what Madiba did when he shook my hand. He made direct Eye contact, Smiled that smile of his that could light up a small town, and his open Positive Posture conveyed his genuine interest and boy did I feel good.

We loved Madiba not because he had high status but because he made us feel like we did. He overrode that all too common reflex to ignore those who lack social standing. Character is how we treat people who can be of no possible use to us. I had my hand shaken by Nelson Mandela not because I was special but because he thought everyone was.


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