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Leadership is not about ruling people, but about serving people

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This week Nelson Mandela, in London for his 90th birthday celebrations, broke his silence about what he called the tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe. And though his words won’t end the reign of violence and intimidation, they do remind us of why democracy is important and why Nelson Mandela remains one of the heroes of our time.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. And in places like Zimbabwe, at times like this, we see why.

One of the primal human drives is the will to power. It’s natural for some to seek to rule others, and once they have power, they’ll do all they can, by fair means or foul, to keep hold of it. Half the tears of history flow from that fact.

Yet we are not prisoners of our desires. Alongside nature, we have culture. We act not just out of instinct but out of conscience. And gradually, slowly, painfully, homo sapiens has evolved ways of humanizing the will to power.

Of these, the most effective is democracy, because it creates accountability. And when leaders betray those to whom they are accountable, it provides for the peaceful transition of power.

That is what Nelson Mandela achieved in South Africa in an act of moral greatness. By forgiving those who had oppressed his people he ensured that one of the great transitions of power in modern times could happen peacefully, without brutality and bloodshed.

Democracy is not in itself a religious value, but it is the best way we know of preserving the religious values of freedom, justice and the rule of law

Judaism and Christianity, in their different ways, temper the will to power by insisting that it respect the dignity of the powerless. God asks us to plead the cause of the oppressed, as Nelson Mandela has done this week. We believe that rulers and ruled alike are in the image of God. And out of these beliefs came the most revolutionary of all ideas to have humanized power, namely that leadership is not about ruling people but about serving people.

150 years ago another visionary leader, Abraham Lincoln, uttered one of the great prayers in the long battle for human dignity: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Let’s repeat that prayer for the people of Zimbabwe today.