As I read all the tributes to Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death yesterday at age 95, I recalled the fact that I memorably met the man once. It was at a small and magical dinner hosted by the philanthropists Craig and Susan McCaw in their Seattle home in the late 1990s.
In fact, I was one of two non-profit leaders asked to speak at this event attended by two dozen leaders from the worlds of business, philanthropy and government. A bit nervous as one can imagine, I gave a short talk on my work with Grameen Foundation. (Among those I met that night were the sitting Governor of the state of Washington and Bill Gates, but Mandela’s presence was what made the night so unique and thrilling.)
After each course was served and cleared, people were asked to move from one table to the next. This way, everyone got some time with Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel. By that time, Mandela was rather hard of hearing so it was not easy to engage him in conversation. But just sitting with him at a table for eight people for twenty minutes was quite something.
I see a lot in common between Mandela and Father Joseph Philippe, the founder of Fonkoze. Both are/were great moral leaders and men of action. Both are savvy (and occasionally infuriating) negotiators, practical visionaries, sometimes rather stubborn, and impossibly generous of spirit. Both emerged from their years in the wilderness – Mandela’s spent in prison, Father Joseph’s biding his time until the Duvalier dictatorship fell – and immediately started building movements to create social and political change. Clearly they are also different in many ways.
One of the stories that I hope gets told about both as people reflect on their lives is that of the friends, helpers, and “intrapreneurs” around Mandela and Father Joseph who were essential in allowing them to realize so many of their visions, even if not always in the exact forms they initially imagined.