Business Cannot Be Just Business: A Lesson from Mandela

As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, he is remembered for his message of peace and reconciliation. From his own experience with South Africa’s political and spiritual leader, global innovation expert Bhaskar Chakravorti remembers Mandela for teaching him a valuable lesson: the importance of conducting business in a global context.

In a column for Harvard Business Review, Chakravorti reflects back to the mid-1990s when he presented to a group of South African senior bureaucrats and technologists a breakthrough technology, known as the Internet, that would connect Africa with the rest of the world. His proposal wasn’t met with the reaction he expected. Conveying Mandela’s thoughts, a senior minister expressed that South Africa would connect to only one country, Malaysia.

Chakravorti questioned the business sense of this decision. “You do not argue with Nelson Mandela,” he was told; Mandela had personally asked for the Malaysia cable to strengthen the two countries’ bond. Chakravorti grasped an important lesson: context is, indeed, king. The “linear logic of business,” he says, cannot discount other factors such as “the momentum of emerging geopolitical alliances.”

That lesson has stayed with Chakravorti. As the senior associate dean of International Business and Finance of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, Chakravorti helps business leaders understand the many ways in which business is shaped by and influences non-business factors, such as politics, history and the human condition. “Business cannot be left alone to be just business,” Chakravorti says. “Leaders ignore this bigger picture at their peril.”

An engaging and insightful speaker, he has advised more than 30 companies in the Fortune 500, as well as policy makers and investors and entrepreneurs, spanning multiple geographies and industries on innovation and global forces. He says that the best global leaders must become experts in many disciplines, such as geopolitics and economics. Challenging audiences to look beyond traditional market forces, he helps them connect the dots between multiple domains – political, legal and regulatory – to make decisions to impact the larger business ecosystem.

Stern Strategy Group: