With the eyes of the world on South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup there have been many media stories on the remarkable progress of the country since abolishing Apartheid in 1994. Last Saturday night Heather and I were looking for a movie to watch at home. We happened upon Invictus starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springbok’s rugby team. It turned out to be a very timely and inspiring choice.

The movie is a true story based on John Carlinbook’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation. It centers around newly elected President Mandela’s attempts to reconcile the country’s racial divide (and avoid a civil war) through uniting all sides in supporting South Africa’s rugby team as they made their historic drive toward the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship being held in that country. Traditionally, rugby was a white sport with black South African’s cheering for the Springbok’s opponents and rejoicing in their usual defeat.

Mandela very skillfully uses the World Cup event as a galvanizing opportunity to change deeply entrenched views and redirect the clashing sides toward a common goal. In one of the movie’s many powerful leadership scenes, Mandela rushes to a meeting of the new black dominated South Africa Sports Committee and barely convinces them to reverse their decision to change the Springbok name and colors. Later he shows more of the depth of his leadership and drive toward reconciliation in response to his party members bitterly reminding Mandela of the 27 years he spent in prison, and all the crimes and injustices against blacks under Apartheid; “Forgiveness liberates the soul. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon. We have to prove we are not what they (whites) fear. We have to surprise them with compassion.”

Some of this story’s most powerful leadership lessons come from Mandela’s first meeting with the Springbok’s captain. Responding to Mandela’s question on his leadership philosophy, Pienaar says he believes in leading by example. Mandela agrees that’s critical. Mandela then challenges him; “How do you inspire a people (or a team) to be better than they think they are?” The inspirational leadership theme builds throughout the rest of the film. Mandela’s words, “visible felt leadership,” and his history become powerful rallying points for ever higher performance.

Mandela also recites parts of a poem to Pienaar which he says gave him the inspiration to persevere during his long imprisonment. Phrases from the Victorian lyric poem (four line and four stanzas), Invictus (Latin for unconquered), by William Ernest Henley become a major theme throughout the rest of the movie. The last two lines are; “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” To read the poem and background on how Henley penned it as he overcame his personal challenges click on Invictus. To view a dramatic one minute video of Sir Alan Bates reading the poem CLICK HERE.

Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest leadership examples of our time. Here are a few insights (most are from his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom) to effective leadership and living from this remarkable “change agent:”

“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

As the 2010 FIFA World Cup wraps up and many of us in Canada and the U.S. get ready to celebrate the birth of our nations this coming weekend, Mandela’s life story provides incredible lessons in personal leadership and nation building.