Mandela and his Metamorphosis at Robben Island

JMI_72ppiRGB_150pixw[Editor’s Note:  We are pleased to welcome Wayne F. Cascio, University of Colorado-Denver and Fred Luthans, University of Nebraska, Lincoln as Guest Editors. They have provided some background on their article, “Reflections on the Metamorphosis at Robben Island: The Role of Institutional Work and Positive Psychological Capital”, recently published in the January, 2014 issue of the Journal of Management Inquiry.]

Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners from South Africa were imprisoned on notorious Robben Island from the mid-1960s until the end of the apartheid regime in 1991.  The stark conditions and abusive treatment of these prisoners has been widely publicized. However, upon reflection and in retrospect, over the years a type of metamorphosis occurred.  From first-hand accounts of the former prisoners and guards, it seems that Robben Island morphed from the traditional oppressive prison paradigm to one where the positively oriented prisoners disrupted the institution with a resulting climate of learning and transformation that eventually led to freedom and the end of apartheid. This metamorphosis led to one of, if not the greatest, societal transformations in modern history.

The primary research question we sought to answer was this: How were the political prisoners who were incarcerated at the Robben Island maximum-security prison from the mid-1960s to early 1991 able to transform their experience of imprisonment from one of abuse and subjugation to one of learning and transformation? At a macro level of analysis, we use the theoretical lens of institutional work, and, at a micro level, positive psychological capital (hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism) to explain what happened.

Institutional work aimed at disrupting institutions involves attacking or undermining the mechanisms that lead members to comply with institutions. At Robben Island, this took two forms: separating existing rules and practices from their moral foundations, and undermining core assumptions and beliefs.  Evidence of this form of disruption can be found in the quote of former prisoner Patrick Lekota that, “The warders were primed to see us as terrorists, Communists, and devils with horns.  But these largely uneducated people, many of whom came from orphanages, eventually wanted to understand why we were there.  It was tremendously refreshing and inspiring to see these ordinary people appreciating our cause.”

To do the work of disrupting the institutional norms of the prison on Robben Island, the prisoners drew from and developed their positive psychological capital, or PsyCap. They used specific practices or coping strategies (setting goals, establishing a code of conduct, institutionalizing education for all, and maintaining a common identity and a united front) as forms of institutional work to operationalize and enhance PsyCap. 

We used four facets of PsyCap – hope, efficacy, resiliency and optimism (the “HERO” within) to provide evidence of the important role that the prisoners’ apparent high level of PsyCap played in helping explain the metamorphosis at Robben Island. People who are hopeful believe they can set goals, figure out how to achieve them through appropriate pathways, and motivate themselves to accomplish them. They also proactively determine how to circumvent any obstacles they encounter in order to accomplish their goals. Efficacy refers to an individual’s conviction (or confidence) about his or her abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action needed to execute a specific task in a given context successfully. Resilience includes at least three kinds of adaptive responses: (1) an ability to cope or function positively, despite inordinate demands. (2) Self-repair and recovery from periods when the individual was functioning poorly, or from episodes of illness, injury, or disaster. (3) Readiness to anticipate and deal with demands that may be inevitable, for example, those in the jobs of first-responders, i.e., soldiers, firefighters, police, and members of rescue services.

In spite of incredible hardship, brutality, and constant emotional agony, the political prisoners on Robben Island were remarkably resilient. They had a clear purpose or vision, which was to free South Africa from the apartheid regime and to build a democratic state in its place. Their struggle had meaningfulness, which reflected a deeper understanding with feeling, as well challenges that were worthy of the investment in and leverage of their positive psychological capital. 

Optimism focuses on the future. Here is an illustration that is analogous to the “glass-half-full” mantra of optimists: Former Robben-Island prisoner Ahmed Kathrada often referred to a quotation in which two prisoners looked out of a prison cell.  One saw stars and the other saw bars.  He, like many of his fellow prisoners, saw stars. 

In-depth analysis of first-hand and published accounts of events on Robben Island yields a rich tapestry of details that illustrates each facet of the HERO within and provides a deeper understanding of the metamorphosis that took place over time.  From the early 1960s to the departure of the political prisoners in 1991, Robben Island arguably moved from being the worst to the “best” prison in South Africa, at least as far as black people were concerned. 

With the benefit of reflective analysis, we argue that the political prisoners, and especially their leaders, disrupted the institution and drew from and exhibited PsyCap. Those processes resulted in the dramatic metamorphosis from abuse and subjugation to learning and transformation at Robben Island. This disruptive, but positive, approach has many lessons for leadership. The Robben Island metamorphosis indicates, at least under oppressive conditions, that organizational participants become empowered when they have a common vision; when they feel that they are in control of their actions, and that they can self-govern; when they are responsible; believe that they can prevail (i.e., through hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism); can live in the organization under perspectives that they value; and can grow from the experience.  These findings provide support for authentic, ethical, positive leadership.

wayne_f_cascioWayne F. Cascio is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Colorado, and he holds the Robert H. Reynolds Chair in Global Leadership at the University of Colorado Denver.  He has served as president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (1992-1993), Chair of the SHRM Foundation (2007), the HR Division of the Academy of Management (1984), and as a member of the Academy of Management’s Board of Governors (2003-2006). He is a senior editor of the Journal of World Business.

He has authored or edited 27 books on human resource management, including Short Introduction to Strategic Human Resource Management (with John Boudreau, 2012), Investing in People (with John Boudreau, 2nd ed., 2011), Managing Human Resources (9th ed., 2013), and Applied Psychology in Human Resource Management (7th ed., with Herman Aguinis, 2011).  He is a two-time winner of the best-paper award from the Academy of Management Executive for his research on downsizing and responsible restructuring.

In 1999 he received the Distinguished Career award from the HR Division of the Academy of Management. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Geneva (Switzerland) in 2004, and in 2008 he was named by the Journal of Management as one of the most influential scholars in management in the past 25 years.  

In 2010 he received the Michael R. Losey Human Resources Research Award from the Society for Human Resource Management, and 2013 he received the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.  From 2011-2013 he served as Chair of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group that is developing international standards for the Human Resources profession, and he represented the United States to the International Organization for Standards. Dr. Cascio has consulted with many organizations on six continents and is an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, the Academy of Management, the American Psychological Association, and the Australian HR Institute. His work is featured regularly in business media, including The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Harvard Business Review, among others. 

Dr. Cascio earned his B.A. degree from Holy Cross College, his M.A. degree from Emory University, and his Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Rochester.


Fred Luthans (1024)Fred Luthans received his BA, MBA and PhD from the University of Iowa. He is University and George Holmes Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Nebraska. Before coming to Nebraska in 1967, while serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, he taught leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A former President of the Academy of Management, Luthans also received the Academy’s Distinguished Educator Award. He received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award and an Honorary Doctorate from De Paul University.  Luthans is currently editor or co-editor of Journal of World Business, Organizational Dynamics, and Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies. He is the author of several well-known books and numerous research articles (e.g., he was recognized as one of the all-time “Top 5 Authors” of the Academy of Management Journal and the Review and in two of the past three years received Emerald’s Award for authoring one of the 50 most cited articles in 300 Business, Economics and Management journals. In total, his work has over 21,000 citations). He is generally recognized as the author of the first mainline textbook in Organizational Behavior (now in its 12th edition) and has the market-leader in International Management (now in its 8th edition) both published by McGraw-Hill.  His latest professional books are (with Bruce Avolio) The High Impact Leader (McGraw -Hill) and (with Carolyn Youssef and Bruce Avolio) Psychological Capital published by Oxford University Press. Professor Luthans’ research at first focused on a behavioral approach to management or what he called O.B. Mod. (organizational behavior modification). In recent years, he has given relatively more attention to the theory-building, measurement and impact of what he founded and has termed “positive organizational behavior (POB)” and “psychological capital (PsyCap)”. He has been actively doing teaching, research and consulting in Europe, Southeast Asia and especially China over the past 30 years. Currently, he is Chair of the Master Research Council for HUMANeX Ventures. For further information see his entry in Wikipedia, some interviews on YouTube, or his publication profile in Google Scholar (Fred Luthans).










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