Twelve years ago I was asked in an interview at JHU-SAIS who I considered to be my hero. As an academic our training is to question and analyze rather than think about who we should put on a pedestal. I nevertheless immediately answered Nelson Mandela. Every leader has her or his shortcomings, and Mandela did as well. Yet there were three things that stood out for me about Mandela above others.

Foremost was his commitment to bringing about change in his society. He believed and sacrificed over twenty-five years of his life in prison to promote democracy in South Africa. For him, the key elements of freedom, equality and human dignity underscored his efforts to bring about change. While acknowledging racial and class differences, he aimed to bring his country and with it everyone else to a world where everyone had a place at the table, and where they was an appreciation that everyone should have the opportunity to sit at the same table. There are few leaders in the world who connect their principles with actions. Mandela was one of them, leaving a legacy of greater inclusion and choice.

My admiration for Mandela extends to how he aimed to reach his goals. His struggle was not just about one side gaining power over the other, but one in which a new system was created to allow for communities across races and faiths to live together. He implemented an electoral system that was not a winner take all system, but shared power. He pushed for dialogue regarding abuses of power. The ‘truth and reconciliation’ process set a new bar on how to bring a society together. He extended a hand to those who put him in prison, not in vengeance or anger, but in empathy and in search of understanding.  This willingness not just to compromise, but to problem solve and accommodate is a lasting legacy for how to bring about meaningful change.

Finally, Mandela focused on the future and the bigger picture. While we are all shaped by the past, he did not let the shadows of his life darken the possibilities of tomorrow. He did not get bogged down in the nitty gritty of details, missing the core issues. In his last years, he focused on youth and engagement with future generations, inspiring and connecting with the dreams of the future. This ability to look ahead, to see the broad horizon of what can come and help those bring about a better world was an inspiration.

As we remember a person such as Nelson Mandela, we need to take the lessons of his life and apply them for our collective future. Heroism is not something to observe, but to inculcate and engage as best each of us can, even imperfectly.