The passing this week of Archbishop Desmond Tutu brings a flood of memories of an amazing man and a remarkable chapter in history. I was in South Africa from 1989 to 1995 and witnessed him in action on many occasions.
In the framework of conflict styles, Tutu was strong in multiple styles. He was often pushy – the Directing style.
Often he was both at once! In conflict styles language, that’s the Cooperating or Collaborating style, simultaneously committed to one’s own agenda and to the agendas of others. So he was bold, strong, and outspoken as a leader for justice, yet consistently compassionate and responsive to the needs of others, including the white communities who in the beginning despised and feared him.
There were many wonderful consequences. One was he was earned the trust and respect of many South Africans, including many whites, and he was often a bridge between groups in volatile situations (including, late in his life, warring politicians in an electoral conflict in neighboring Lesotho).
Perhaps even more important, his Cooperating style helped unify his own fractured constituencies. A largely unrecognized reality of longstanding social and political conflict is polarization within each side. Wherever there’s a big liberation or political struggle (including here in the US right now) you will find deep division among supposed “partners in arms”. South Africa’s liberation movement was terribly, sometimes murderously splintered from the 1970s onwards.
So Tutu’s Cooperating style of leadership was a tremendous gift of unity to the movement itself. He initiated many things, but he never owned them. He worked hard, but he didn’t clamor for credit. He delegated leadership and authority.
This week I’ve spoken with several South African friends from my years there. I am struck by how many feel they played a key role in Tutu’s prophetic and nation-changing role. People feel not only that they were “close to him”, but that they personally contributed in important ways to Tutu’s mission. This probably reflects the universal human need for recognition. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as close to this noble man?
But there’s more: Tutu was a man of truly generous heart. He stood with boldness in the limelight but he didn’t hog it. You never doubted, seeing him in action, that he was in this for others, not for gratification of his own ego.
He didn’t have to be at the center of everything. He made space for others to lead. He delegated key tasks and commissioned people to carry out key missions mandated and supported by his office. Some leaders do this in a way that makes every effort an extension of their own ego, but Tutu wasn’t like that. He inspired and empowered and released people to do the work that needed to be done.
I suspect dozens of people across South Africa feel that they personally played a special role in the evolving prophetic ministry of Desmond Tutu! He didn’t hoard credit, recognition, or power, rather he made it easy for others to share in them. All with whom he worked came to feel they held a stake in the goodness he brought into the world.
On a personal note: Though in gatherings where Tutu spoke from time to time, I never worked directly with “the Arch” in my South Africa years. But later, in 2012 he accepted the request of Heads of Churches of Lesotho, with whom I was working at that time, to help secure commitment of politicians to an Electoral Code of Conduct. I’ve published memories from my journal of an amazing day at this link.