Three Things We Can Learn From Nelson Mandela

by Ellen on December 5, 2013

The world lost a highly decorated and influential figure today as Nelson Mandela succumbed to a longstanding illness at age 95. His legacy stretched across many nations, and in a number of ways, he embodied the ideals upon which Model UN is built. His life was spent overcoming adversity, fighting for change, and upholding an ideal of optimism, and he died as one of the most widely respected symbols for peace and humanitarian progress ever recognized in our collective global history.

Nelson Mandela lived as a symbol for hope and change.

Nelson Mandela lived as a symbol for hope and change.

There are many controversial figures in international politics. The heroes of one nation are the terrorists of another, and many names carry a polarized familiarity that evokes pride and admiration to some, and fear and rage to others. It is in the nature of our cultural differences to disagree on who we will remember in fame, and who we will remember in infamy, but there are few who would argue against the description of Nelson Mandela as deserving of his fame. He was a figure that touched the world in ways few would think possible, and one that we, as a global community of students, teachers, competitors, and delegates, can look to for poignant lessons of leadership and morality as we move toward change.

“A good leader can engage in debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger.” When we debate one another, whether in simulation or real committees, we often forget that it is with the intention of moving closer to compromise. As students who strive to make a difference, we must hold that message at the forefront of our minds and remember that our ultimate goal is to come together through cooperative debate.

“It is better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” The question of what makes a good leader is one that is intimately tied to Model UN. We discuss it constantly as we learn to control blocs, question the strategies of “power delegates” and employ tricks to heighten our appeal as leaders. But there is no tip or trick that can substitute the qualities of a true leader. Nelson Mandela answered this question that we have discussed so extensively in fewer words than we have used to ask it. A true leader, in Model UN and the world, is not the leader that faces victory and success alone, but the one that lets their followers become their best, stepping in to support them in the face of adversity.

“There is no passion to be found in playing small-in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Today we are small. Each of us is one delegate among tens of thousands. But through our ambitions, and our refusal to ever accept less than our best, we become great. Model UN gives us the skills to face a world of global challenges, to navigate a polarized political environment, and to act as advocates for change. Having these skills, it is our responsibility to make a difference. Not all of us will become diplomats. It is quite possible that very few of us will even choose to enter the world of international politics. But that does not lessen our responsibility to apply what we have learned as delegates and advisors change the world for the better. We must remember that Model UN is a stepping stone, the path we take toward accomplishing great things and bringing change to the world.

Today we should remember and honor a great and influential man, but in the coming weeks, months, and years, we should look ahead to what we are going to do as living advocates for change and the world’s future leaders. Nelson Mandela’s time as a leader for peace has come to a close, but his legacy and the lessons he has taught us about leadership and change will never lose their potency.


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