Happy birthday Nelson Mandela, arguably the greatest leader of our time. He would have turned 98 last week.

He led as a human, through empathy,  compassion, and understanding, not authority. In fact, his political opponents had far more authority, resources, weapons, money, and everything.

Yet he led them.

Don't like your work? Mandela had to break stone for decades.

Think you have a bad boss? Mandela's leaders put him in prison for life.

Yet he negotiated with two Presidents from prison... and got their jobs, becoming the father of a nation.

If you want to lead, influence, manage, sell, hustle, or anything of the sort, you need to know how to read and work with people's emotions. Mandela was a master of emotions--his and others'.

I'll share a business parable I share with students and clients to illustrate emotional skill. I always considered the parable too perfect, no one could actually do it. Then I found Nelson Mandela actually did it.

External incentives versus internal motivation

The following story illustrates the dangers of motivating people with external incentives, which can undermine internal motivations and passions.

Some children started playing ball in a park. Next to the park lived an elderly man. He went out on his porch and asked them to play more quietly. They said it was a public park and didn't stop playing.

The old man went inside, came back out, and said to them, "If I can't get you to play more quietly, then I'll give you each one dollar."

The kids were confused, but accepted the money and went back to playing, more happy than before for the money.

The next day they came to play again. Again he called them over and gave each a dollar. They kept playing, more happily for the money.

The next day they played and he gave them each a dollar. Again the next day and the next and the next.

Then one day, as they played, they realized he hadn't come out. They knocked on his door.

When he came out, they asked why he hadn't come out and if he had dollars for them.

He said, "I'm sorry, I don't have any more money for you. You'll have to play without the dollars."

So they stopped playing and went home.

And that is a story of how to undermine someone's internal passion with external incentives.

If you ever expected to love a job and then found meaningless, there's a chance your manager didn't recognize and foster the passions that led you to expect to love the work, especially if he or she valued money more.

If you motivate people with only external incentives, you may be undermining their passions. Learn what they care about and connect those passions to their work.

Nelson Mandela lived it!

As I mentioned, I always considered the story a nice illustration, but too perfect. It couldn't happen in real life, I felt.

While researching Mandela for my book, I saw he used the technique to lead a jailer from prison. Here is the story, as told by a fellow prisoner (the "new set of people" meant a new set of jailers, and "rehabilitating" them meant taking a leadership role in gaining rights and privileges beyond what prisoners normally got):

They brought in a new set of people, whom we had to start rehabilitating as whole set from scratch. We usually had to rehabilitate these chaps. Anyhow, this van der Merwe was one of those chaps. He was the one who took us out on a daily basis to the lime quarry. After a while, we discussed the whole matter, it was decided that one of our number, a chap by the name of Mops ... would offer to carry the lunch box of this chap to work, gradually begin to undermine him ... It became sort of automatic, Mops would go and fetch it or [van der Merwe] would ... push out his hand and Mops would take the thing and so on ... and [in a] mock servile way, would then carry the lunch box there and back.

Anyhow, on one occasion when we had had enough of this fellow, there was some real incident in the quarry ... there was a decision made that Mops would no longer carry this chap's lunch box. So when the chap wanted to give Mops the lunch box, Mops said ... in a very crude way, "No, I don't carry bloody white man's lunch box." And this chap couldn't believe it. He was so taken aback that he literally walked with the lunch box after Mops, behind Mops, and asked him to carry it. Mops just refused point blank. I'll never forget that incident because it showed the extent to which we had managed to not just undermine him, because he became much friendlier obviously ... but also the extent to which they misunderstood whom they were dealing with. The fact that we had very carefully planned the whole thing, and that their whole strategy had boomeranged on them. That whole period was one of a lot of suffering for us, but we also learned a lot from it.

They did what the old man in the story did! They rewarded behavior they didn't want and then, when they removed the reward, the jailer stopped the behavior.

Without any authority over him, they led him through better understanding human emotions and motivations.

We can't all become then next President, but we can all be more sensitive to our teammates' emotions and lead with empathy, compassion, and understanding more effectively than with external incentives or authority.