Choosing Principles Over Power

Feb 03, 2017 1 Min Read
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Leaders who stick to their principles no matter what, are one of a kind

When I was asked to write about great political leaders who – driven by their principles – rose above their politics, I initially felt somewhat stuck: principles and politics are words that rarely run well together in the same sentence.

Yet, while it can be easy to focus on the flaws and faults of those tasked with making colossal decisions daily – that impact the lives of millions – it’s even easier to forget that political leaders throughout the decades have forged peaceful relationships, effected substantial change for the betterment of the world, and even saved the planet from potential disasters.

While human nature continues to thrive, politics will always exist – but some world leaders have been able, for a time at least, to rise above politics and allow their principles to guide the kinds of actions that have brought stability, union, peace and progress to the world.

In his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, I was struck by the tumultuous journey of Nelson Mandela: the troubled life he experienced as a youth, the segregation, the conflict, struggles, persecution and oppressions. As I read the book, I felt a sense of shame in the realisation that, for the most part, I found it easy to look at a person’s story and judge their path by my own standards.

This is something we all do. It’s easy to criticise when we look at a person from our perspective and expectations, but when we take the time to know a person’s story, we often find reasons to explain why they took a particular course of action and – more important – we find out just how misconstrued our judgements can often be.

I was always an admirer of Mandela, but his story drove home an important point: it’s easy to admire those you already respect. The mark of true growth of a person’s character is whether they can look at someone they don’t agree with or respect, and take the time to at least try to understand the world from that person’s perspective.

This is exactly what made Mandela a giant among men. A leader with qualities in abundance, his wisdom and compassion stood tall above all else. On his release from a 27-year imprisonment, the man who would become South Africa’s iconic leader could have easily – and understandably – sought revenge against his enemies. Mandela chose a different path. He chose forgiveness and reconciliation.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Nelson Mandela

In his autobiography, he wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” This was a man who, had he chosen the path of revenge, wouldn’t have found himself short of supporters. In choosing to rise above the politics of conflict, he gained worldwide respect and admiration in sending out his message that, even under the harshest circumstances, we retain the freedom to always choose a better way forward.

Political leaders – as we all know – are not without their faults or mistakes and, certainly, wherever misconduct is found, the people have a duty to call it out. But, the world has been blessed to have the kind of leaders who can rise above the political pressure or influence, and be inspired by their principles to make the right choices.

Remaining true to our principles can often be harder than it seems, which is why those who manage to do so are the leaders who stand out as timeless inspirations to us all.

Nelson Mandela’s story is one that reveals the nuanced complexity and the struggles behind what it means to be human, let alone a political leader. Every one of us has our thoughts and views of how things should be and we act according to our ideologies, more often than not, without question.

However, it’s when we rise above the fixed views and the dogmas – whenever they are in conflict with what we know to be right – that we show the best of our humanity and our innate desire to be of service to others whenever we can.

This might interest you: The Real Power Of Forgiveness

Five leaders who helped shape the world

Photo Credit: Law-Right


1. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – British Prime Minister

Churchill had a difficult childhood, and suffered a terrible stutter as a young man. In his political life, he was routinely humiliated early on, and was ignored in his warnings of the rise of Hitler. Despite the hardships faced by Churchill, he would go on to become one of the world’s most inspiring leaders and renowned orators, and his own experience of war would help him to navigate Britain through one of its darkest hours.

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. . . we shall never surrender.”

2. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

It was John Paul II’s intervention during the Cold War that stopped the Russians from invading Poland in an effort to quash a potential revolt. As the Russians prepared to invade, John Paul II sent a message to the Kremlin that he would personally fly out to Warsaw and meet the tanks head-on, armed with just his walking staff. In the end, the tanks never came, and as a result, Russia’s grip on Eastern Europe began to slip as nations began to defy Moscow.

“I plead with you — never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

3. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – Civil Rights Activist and Leader

The Oxford-educated lawyer gave up a life of riches and comfort to pursue a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience to help India secure its independence from Britain. Whenever his followers would take up violent actions, Gandhi would go on hunger strike until they relented. He encouraged his fellow countrymen to avoid buying anything British, and to instead, make their own clothes and other materials. Following the slaughter of hundreds of his unarmed followers, Gandhi wrote, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time, they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.”

“There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”

4. John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) – American President

Despite having just 34 months in office before his assassination in November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s leadership helped to prevent a nuclear war breaking out between Russia and America, following Russia’s deal with Cuba to build a missile site. For 13 days in October 1962, Kennedy’s resolve to secure a peaceful solution was successful, which led to the 35th United States President being lauded as a hero both at home and throughout the world.

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that, we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.”

5. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) – Christian Missionary

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa devoted her life to the poor and the suffering, becoming a global icon who inspired people throughout the world to help others in need. Mother Teresa established her Missionary of Charities organisation, and cared for thousands of ill and dying people in Calcutta.

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’”

Four qualities of principled leaders

1. They are service-oriented

Those striving to be principle-centred see life as a mission, not as a career. Their nurturing sources have armed and prepared them for service. In effect, every morning they “yoke up” and put on the harness of service, thinking of others.


2. They radiate positive energy

The countenances of principle-centred people are cheerful, pleasant, happy, their attitude is optimistic, positive, upbeat. Their spirit is enthusiastic, hopeful, believing.


3. They are synergistic

Synergy is the state in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Principle-centred people are synergistic. They are change catalysts. They improve almost any situation they get into. They work as smart as they work hard. They are amazingly productive, but in new and creative ways.
In team endeavours, they build on their strengths and strive to complement their weaknesses with the strengths of others.


4. They believe in other people

Principle-centred people don’t overreact to negative behaviours, criticism, or human weaknesses. They don’t feel built up when they discover the weaknesses of others. They are not naïve; they are aware of their weakness. But they realise that behaviour and potential are two different things. They believe in the unseen potential of all people. They feel grateful for their blessings and feel naturally to compassionately forgive and forget the offenses of others. They don’t carry grudges. They refuse to label other people, to stereotype, categorise, and prejudge.

(Source: Principle-Centred Leadership by Stephen Covey)

Suggested reading: A Positive Force For Change


3 ways to develop (or review) principles

1. Ask yourself, “How would I like others to see me?”

We tend to avoid being given a real sense of what others think of us – most people are too polite to give even constructive criticism when it comes to how we behave. To circumvent this well-intended social grace, rather than looking to others for guidance, try to cultivate behaviours that you would want to see in yourself, were you an outsider looking in on your conduct.


2. Think about how you have developed over the past few years

Usually, principles are proactive guides that we live by – which means that we should, according to our principles, have seen some kind of positive difference that we’ve made for ourselves and others over a period of time. How much have you grown in the past few years? How many people have you helped? Have you been generous with your time for those who needed it? Whatever your values, they should always drive you forward in a way that’s purposeful to you.


3. Take an inventory check on your goals

I know, plans and goals sound decidedly dreary – but the reality is that they allow us to chart a defined course towards whatever we desire to achieve over the short and long term. By regularly taking stock of our goals, we naturally align our principles to help us manifest the kind of future we wish to create and shape.

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Tags: Be A Leader, Hard Talk

Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.

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