It is crucial for every manager to develop their distinct leadership style. Every person is unique, and leaders become their personal best when they are authentic and generate their style based on their individual strengths. Merely copying somebody else’s leadership style can in fact be disastrous for managers – and their teams.
To improve your leadership skills however, it makes sense to look at role models and see what you can learn from them. When discussing such role models with my executive coaching clients, there is always the same name that comes to my mind first: Nelson Mandela! He is not a perfect man, but he has demonstrated unusual Leadership Qualities, that remain uncommon with most African Leaders.
Although it is impossible to summarize what we can learn from this outstanding man in a single article like this, here is just my own attempt informed by several publications on Mandela through various Authors like Gerrit Pelzer, Paul Wolf, Richard Stengel, Martin Kalungu-Banda and TV Documentaries. Mandela inspires me to take the long view and do the right thing one day at a time – even if it is not strategic or expedient in the short term.
What might we need for a generation of Mandelas to emerge in Africa in particular and in the world today?
The world is in dire need of great leaders, ones who inspire people not through words but by serving them. The cutting edge in leadership discourse is the old fashioned idea of leadership through service. The whole human race, we could say, desperately needs these servant-leaders who really attend to others and are beacons of hope in our search for a world society where justice, fairness, care for the weaker members of our communities, and love flourish.
The call for leaders who genuinely serve their people is obvious in social and political communities. We can see it equally in the economic sphere, in business organisations or corporations. The high turnover of staff in many work places suggests that people are looking for true Leaders like Nelson Mandela, a gift to the world at a time when many so called leaders are battling with leading. Both his live and his goal were one in the struggle to get South Africa out of the agony of Apartheid and with his leadership he not only succeeded, but he provided an enduring example and direction fighting for all colours.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Nelson Mandela
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe. Mandela himself was educated at University College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand and qualified in law in 1942. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and was engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies after 1948. He went on trial for treason in 1956 -1961 and was acquitted in 1961.
After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Nelson Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC. In June 1961, the ANC executive considered his proposal on the use of violent tactics and agreed that those members who wished to involve themselves in Mandela’s campaign would not be stopped from doing so by the ANC. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour. In 1963, when many fellow leaders of the ANC and the Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. His statement from the dock received considerable international publicity. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1964 to 1982, he was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town; thereafter, he was at Pollsmoor Prison, nearby on the mainland.
During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela’s reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.
Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. After his release, he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after the organization had been banned in 1960, Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation’s National Chairperson.
Nelson Mandela is an embodiment of inspiration. Even during his years on Robben Island, he continued to inspire the movement for change against the odds. Mandela has been imprisoned for 27 years as a political prisoner. It neither changed his spirit nor did it stop him from continuing his struggle to make South Africa free of Apartheid. When he entered Robben Island in 1964 he was emotionally headstrong and easily stung. The man however who emerged from this imprisoned island was far more balanced and disciplined. At some stage he said: “I came out mature.” He smiled like he often smiled, not showing fear despite going through fear at times, not showing the internal struggle he often experienced. His life has been always at the centre of struggle. In 1994, 4 years after his release from Robben Island , he became the first democratically elected “black” president of South Africa at the age of 75. He embraced at this stage both black and white in his efforts to create unity in the damaged “soul” of South Africa. He devoted his life to the fight against domination and gave it the very best performance, an enduring example for many generations to come. An example as well that regardless of age the course may endure and the dream will never die, if we have one being as a Leader large enough to add value to life.
Life only is a brief expression of the universe with endless possibilities and ideas, both in the positive and the negative. Mandela tuned into the irreversible idea for justice to be achieved for South Africa and made it his lives work, neither only justice for the blacks but denied justice as well for the whites who were prisoners of being tuned into the wrong ideology. Once a country is tuned into the wrong ideology due to lack of leadership many citizens unfortunately do resonate with the same wrong ideology, whatever it is.
Whilst being influenced by the Gandhi principles on non-violence and initially committed to non violent resistance. Mandela and 150 others were arrested on 5 December 1956 and charged with treason. This slowly changed the consensus over the years within the ANC. It could prove that nonviolent resistance did not work. Whilst Mandela intended to prevent bloodshed even where opponents were the culprits of bloodshed, he could not commit himself to the principle of non-violence anymore as the Government in place allowed the (secret) police to abuse human rights in all dimensions, including all sorts of torture. Being on Robben Island and Mandela seeking obviously freedom, President Botha offered Mandela in 1985 this freedom on condition that he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon’. Mandela released however a statement via his daughter Zindzi saying “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
Mandela added to value of life and to the culture of ideas which makes nations an enduring entity if they stick to the same principles. If the manifestation of a non dominant multiracial culture would have been achieved before the agony of apartheid the struggle now perhaps would be more in the nature of perfecting the “Union” of people in Africa, – working in peaceful harmony together, with Africa being a powerful reflection of a well-integrated society maintaining a strong economy for the benefit of all, with proper law enforcement being the protection for all it’s citizens.
From this point of view Africa has still a long way to go, with “the culture of heart” from Mandela to be maintained and cherished as an ongoing example and “Compass”. It’s an obligation by principle for the new leaders in Africa, to resist the various temptations as Mandela did. He did not cut corners in his approach and whilst President of South Africa, with an inclusive wisdom and both a sense of justice he did facilitate via his government a range of progressive social reforms, for reducing long entrenched social and economic inequalities in South Africa.
His views on the world were not always free of controversies. He strongly opposed the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo and criticised the foreign policy US president George W. Bush in a number of speeches, criticising the lack of UN involvement in the decision to begin the War in Iraq. He said, “It is a tragedy, what is happening, what Bush is doing. But Bush is now undermining the United Nations.” Mandela stated he would support action against Iraq only if it is ordered by the UN. Mandela urged the people of the US to join massive protests against Bush and called on world leaders, especially those with vetoes in the UN Security Council, to oppose him.”What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.” Nelson Mandela also harshly condemned British Prime Minister Tony Blair and referred to him as the “foreign minister of the United States”. Whilst correct in his assessment on the war in Iraq, on the other hand Mandela was uncommonly loyal to Muhammad Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. They had helped the ANC when the U.S. still branded Mandela as a terrorist.
Mandela has received over 200 rewards during four decades and in 1993 the Nobel Peace Price. The United Nations General Assembly announced in November 2009 that Mandela’s birthday, 18 July, is to be known as ‘Mandela Day’ to mark his contribution to world freedom, a reflection not only of his meaning to Africa but to the world in what has been achieved through his lifelong struggle on the road to freedom.
In Mandella’s words “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination”. It was important to identify what makes him so different from other African Leaders. Based on his years in prison, based on his great sacrifice for his country, based on his knowledge and skills as a Lawyer, why did he not seek for vengeance or constitutional amendment to keep him in power for life? He has a large heart for forgiveness. He became friends of same people that sent him to prison. Many have provided several reasons including the fact that he is not infected by the African disease of “stay in power for life”. There are clear leadership lessons generations can learn from him. The following compilation of leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela is just one of many ways of celebrating an unusual African Leader who has contributed in no small way towards the respect of Africans by the rest of the world. We can all learn from him on how to be great leaders.
What is so extraordinary about Mr Mandela’s style and practice of leadership is that it crosses the boundaries of culture, gender, race, religion and age. Madiba (as he is fondly referred to in his home country) has done so in a society that was once more polarized than any other – one the world expected to explode along racial and ethnic lines. That it did not was largely due to this extraordinary man and his unique leadership style. What is equally fascinating about Madiba is the fact that each person that has encountered, in one form or another, his leadership feels personally attended to and served.
Mandela’s leadership transforms ordinary people, events and actions into the extraordinary. Great leadership consists in the capacity to inspire others to greatness. We use the term ‘inspire’ to mean the ability to bring out the best in the people one is entrusted to work and live with. Inspirational leadership, like the yeast that imperceptibly causes the dough to rise and ‘ripen’, permeates society and its institutions in such a way that everyone begins to see their own uniqueness and take up their role in society. Inspirational leadership makes all of us dig deep into the innermost parts of our being to find the very best that lies there and makes it available to others and ourselves. This is what great leadership is all about.
The stories around him show that Mandela inspires the political leader as he does the boxer and the medical doctor; the footballer as much as the pupil and the government bureaucrat; the social activist and the prisoner; a neighbour, a religious leader, a farmer; the artist, the intellectual, the worker in an oil company; the businessman, the street vendor, the widow, the orphan. Through these stories told by ordinary men and women who have been impacted by Madiba’s leadership, we invite others to reflect on, and perhaps attempt to practice, some of the key qualities of great leadership. The following are the key leadership lessons distilled from the Mandela stories.
1. A particular clear purpose adding value to the lives of people at a certain time and a certain place.
”The struggle is my life’, Nelson Mandela once said. Obviously this was not his goal or meaning but it was the reflections of his endeavours to reach his mission to irradiate social injustice in South Africa, racial segregation involving apartheid, discrimination which involved black and coloured people. His life was centred around his goal of creating racial equality. It is clear this was a meaningful purpose affecting many in the positive, resonating positively in the wider context and principle of justice, considering what South Africa has gone through over various decades. As the injustice of “Apartheid” was widely felt both national and international, he did link into an overwhelming majority who felt similar and in his passion for his goal to end this injustice as peaceful as possible did attract an immense support on the road to freedom. Besides this he had the unique characteristics to embody and represent the movement for change, despite intermittent frictions about the right approach. However obviously a leader needs to be able to articulate a wider felt purpose to improve the conditions of others and the more this is tuned or aligned with wider values on the issues at the time, the more support he or she is able to create. Nelson Mandela fits this requirement in full, however this is a very general requirement and there are “Mandela specifics” adding extensively to the leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela. The true worth of Nelson Mandela was not found in himself, but in the changes, the textures and colours that came alive in South Africa as a result of what he added to the history of the people in South Africa.
2. Don’t quit
What dies in people while they are alive by not even attempting to give their once felt dreams the required efforts (even at the risk of not achieving them) is a sad thing. Some start their pathway with good efforts but when they meet strong resistance and times get tough they give up. They tried at least and find perhaps something else. Some would give it the extra inch being required and come on top, but even this is not fool-proof to be successful. How far to take matters is an individual choice and sometimes some soul-searching is required in the question how far to take the desired outcome and at which costs. If the goal is not a self-serving one and is able to stretch to the interests and justice for the many rather than the few who can serve themselves, there is a power in the words: “Stick – to – itiviness and don’t quit!” Even if we don’t succeed to see “the promised land” ourselves. Obviously we speak here about life changing goals and major changes as being faced with eg people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Obafemi Awolowo, apart from various others. For the majority of people the goals are different and may change, but nevertheless there is a fair point to stick it out if there is something you dearly want to achieve. Don’t give up , don’t give in and grow into those goals so that life can’t rob you from it.
Mandela did face many challenges and set backs but in the face of a most powerful government he persisted. His life was his argument by setting an example. Even sentenced to a long stay on Robben Island with freedom taken away, his reputation grew as the most significant black leader of South Africa. He still however had freedom, the last freedom, – the freedom of choice how to take his predicament. This is what Mandela did. Obviously he was tired at times. Obviously he did ask the question:”Is it still possible?”. Obviously there have been times of despair. He was just a human being and who would not feel lost occasionally in the circumstances he faced. However he persistently continued certain habits. In prison, Mandela kept habits that were already in place. He did stick eg to the disciplined eating regime of an athlete, his early morning exercise and not allowing his spirit to get crushed. He performed hard labour in a lime quarry and needless to say the prison conditions were most basic. Political and black prisoners were kept separate and received the lowest level of privileges. Mandela was allowed one letter and one visitor each 6 months. With the restrictions he had he undertook a distance learning program with the University of London by correspondence and obtained a bachelor degree of Laws. He inspired young black activists imprisoned on Robben Island until authorities tried to break the what was called ”The Mandela University” by separating senior ANC leaders like him, Walter Sisulu, Mlaba,Kathrada and Mlangeni from the ANC junior’s. This was in a nutshell Mandela’s response to adversity. It did not leave him unchanged, he became better rather than bitter. This adversity did cultivate both patience and maturity, both planning and timing. It was a creative response, the last choice we have. He created even meaning during his time as a black prisoner, with no real prospect in the beginning that he would ever set foot alive on mainland South Africa.
3. Dare to lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind.
After Mandela was treated for his prostate in 1985 he was separated from his his senior friends and colleagues. Sisulu and the others protested against this but Kathrada considered that perhaps something good may come out of this. What Mandela did was perhaps the most daring thing only a leader can do who keeps the broader picture in mind. He started negotiations with the apartheid government after stating initially that prisoners can’t negotiate and that armed struggle would bring the government down. The risk of total escalating violence was such a grave perspective that he decided to negotiate with a willing apartheid government at the time, oppressors who had the same perception that thing could get totally out of control. Mandela took an immense risk at the time and with his reputation on the line within the ANC he explained to his base that the refusal to negotiate was only a tactical move, not a move by principle. He proved to be most pragmatic as the climate was right to negotiate and he had to arrive at this position first, with his base following. Easier said than done as within the ANC there were people convinced he totally lost it. However Mandela made it. He took the long view as matters were unavoidable to change in the decade ahead. This was a most risky move which could have cost his live. Within a different context US President John F Kennedy took the long view on peace to be far more important than war, with a base being radical anti-communist. He went out of his way to avoid an all out nuclear war on Cuba and he was ahead of his time to realise that the Vietnam war was a waste of American lives and American interests, which proved to be the case many years after his assassination. His “military base” at home, including the US establishment could neither take this broader long view nor this independent President, – hence he was killed. Daring to lead from the front requires to take the base with you. It is a principle in leadership, – stronger it is a principle to survive when times are tough. As a leader at times you have to take this risk and make a move for the better, with the full picture in mind. But don’t do it on your own. Make sure your base is involved and you have the support of the majority, provided there is not an immediate crisis where you have to trust your better instincts against those who may distrust you. In those situations only quick and positive results will take the resistance away. It can be however a real challenge, but Mandela had enough credit to take this calculated move and he proved to be right.
How was he so sure? He was a lawyer and in prison he discovered that the worst and most cruel prison guards were receptive to him whilst offering legal aid to them based on their needs, leaving them completely puzzled and surprised, – that a black man far more educated than them was prepared to do this. Mandela sensed that when you approached those people in the right way, you could do business and negotiate with them, even with the worst representatives of the apartheid regime.
4. Compassion inclusive of differences.
Nelson Mandela became President (1994-1999) of a divided country with hatred at both sides of the spectrum. He persisted in taking the long view as hatred is not the way forward of building the foundations of a new South Africa. Mandela’s aim was a country with racial equality and justice to all parties being part of this new South Africa. Not an easy task, especially where it comes to national reconciliation. And here we might touch base on a few “Mandela specifics”, skills or attitudes not being new but used with integrity to achieve desired results. Let’s face it, Mandela did express unique wisdom in his general approach:During the 1994 Presidential election campaign on his way to Natal to speak to Zulu supporters, Mandela’s plane nearly crashed as due to engine failure. There was some panic indeed but Mandela calmly continued to read his news paper, which did reassure some. Was he scared? He was terrified up there but did not show it because he felt as a leader you can’t show fear. Through the act of making the impression to have no fear, he was an example and inspiration for others in this specific situation. He learnt this at Robben Island as there was enough going on there to provide plenty of fear. However he learnt to master his fear, it’s part of being a good actor at times. The best performance is trying to be a model for others which can give strength, both to yourself and those others. Mandela knew it worked this way. Part of best performance is to smile, rather than showing anger. There was enough to be angry about but it would not help one bit as often anger will be responded with anger. What you resonate to other people will often come back to you and Mandela knew that his relaxed smile was able to melt icy relationships. It is part of the performance understood by both Mandela and US President Barack Obama. Appearance like a smiling one is able to advance a message, in his case the message or symbol actually of lacking bitterness. Mandela knew the past. He knew the past of South Africa. He knew the past of being detained. He knew what happened in detention. But for the sake to achieve national unity you had to set those emotions aside. He often said to forget the past as he really meant to achieve the future, which he projected with an all-inclusive smile. It’s true, he not always felt like this. However it was not part of an empty show, – it was his effort and struggle to embrace a modern South Africa and to move forward, building different dynamics by choice and not emotions. Compassion at a different level than we are used to, with the bigger picture being more important than personal emotions. Mandela knew exactly when to take the next step in the transition of once being a warrior, a politician thereafter, a diplomat and finally a statesman. He was an excellent tactician and a smart politician. Obviously he did stick to his core principles and aims, but often – as he tended to say – issues were rarely a matter of principles, but far more often a matter of tactics. Gandhi as earlier discussed had a similar brilliant approach. In his case independence from Britten by the principle of non-violence to be achieved, but many other issues by the right choice of tactic. People with compassion and integrity allowing and being inclusive of differences need to use tactics as in this world you can’t do without it to get desired results, – in an environment often being hostile and not without danger. Mandela knew what was important for white South Africans. He studied their language, their culture and was able to impress many with his knowledge and his respect being shown to them in Government. He “kept his allies close but his (potential) opponents even more close”, – as the saying goes. He had a remarkable talent to make people at ease, make them feel important with often showing interest in their personal circumstances. It was the best way to break potential “icy relationships” and setting the tune of dynamics. Many people (let’s say white people) changed their mind or opinion after meeting him, – even worst opponents from the past. Mandela managed to get black South Africans behind the previously hated South African national rugby team (Springboks) when South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. After the Springboks did achieve to win from New Zealand, Mandela presented the trophy to the Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar, wearing a Springbok shirt with Pienaar’s own number 6 on the back. This again was a major reflection of his efforts to get increased reconciliation of both white and black South Africans. Using such a popular sport at the time more within the “white” domain to unify the country in its achievement was superseding the terminology of good tactics, – it was simply a wise move.
One of the skills in various meetings Mandela used was “The Indian Talking Stick”. An effective tool from ancient Indian culture of listening respectfully to others when they speak and speak only when it is your turn. Mandela after carefully listening to different opinions in various meetings often spoke as the last one, providing a distinct summary so that people felt understood but meanwhile as a leader directing the outcome of the discussion in the way he actually wanted. On the one hand being led but on the other hand leading so that people could buy into the outcome. It’s a way of creatively resolving differences and get an agreement which works at the point of bonding and trust.
5. Courage is not the absence of fear- it’s inspiring others to move beyond it
In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take him to the rally, he turned to his neighbour and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”
Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would say later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”
And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.
6. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind
Mandela is cagey. in 1985 he was operated on for an enlarged prostate. When he was returned to prison, he was separated from his colleagues and friends for the first time in 21 years. They protested. But as his longtime friend Ahmed Kathrada recalls, he said to them, “Wait a minute, chaps. Some good may come of this.”
The good that came of it was that Mandela on his own launched negotiations with the apartheid government. This was anathema to the African National Congress (ANC). After decades of saying “prisoners cannot negotiate” and after advocating an armed struggle that would bring the government to its knees, he decided that the time was right to begin to talk to his oppressors.
When he initiated his negotiations with the government in 1985, there were many who thought he had lost it. “We thought he was selling out,” says Cyril Ramaphosa, then the powerful and fiery leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. “I went to see him to tell him, What are you doing? It was an unbelievable initiative. He took a massive risk.”
Mandela launched a campaign to persuade the ANC that his was the correct course. His reputation was on the line. He went to each of his comrades in prison, Kathrada remembers, and explained what he was doing. Slowly and deliberately, he brought them along. “You take your support base along with you,” says Ramaphosa, who was secretary-general of the ANC and is now a business mogul. “Once you arrive at the beachhead, then you allow the people to move on. He’s not a bubble-gum leader — chew it now and throw it away.”
For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists.
“He’s a historical man,” says Ramaphosa. “He was thinking way ahead of us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we’ve done?” Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be achieved. “Things will be better in the long run,” he sometimes said. He always played for the long run.
7. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front
Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.
As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say.
Mandela often called meetings of his kitchen cabinet at his home in Houghton, a lovely old suburb of Johannesburg. He would gather half a dozen men, Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki (who eventually became South African President) and others around the dining-room table or sometimes in a circle in his driveway. Some of his colleagues would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical — and Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it. The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”
8. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
As far back as the 1960s, Mandela began studying Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. His comrades in the ANC teased him about it, but he wanted to understand the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting them or negotiating with them, and either way, his destiny was tied to theirs.
This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with his enemy. Everyone from ordinary jailers to P.W. Botha was impressed by Mandela’s willingness to speak Afrikaans and his knowledge of Afrikaner history. He even brushed up on his knowledge of rugby, the Afrikaners’ beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on teams and players.
Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did.
Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to help them. These were “the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid regime’s characters,” says Allister Sparks, the great South African historian, and he “realized that even the worst and crudest could be negotiated with.”
9. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer
Mandela invited many Guests to his house in Qunu. He invited them to dinner; he called to consult with them; he flattered them and gave them gifts. Mandela is a man of invincible charm — and he has often used that charm to even greater effect on his rivals than on his allies.
On Robben Island, Mandela would always include in his brain trust men he neither liked nor relied on. One person he became close to was Chris Hani, the fiery chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing. There were some who thought Hani was conspiring against Mandela, but Mandela cozied up to him. “It wasn’t just Hani,” says Ramaphosa. “It was also the big industrialists, the mining families, the opposition. He would pick up the phone and call them on their birthdays. He would go to family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity.” When Mandela emerged from prison, he famously included his jailers among his friends and put leaders who had kept him in prison in his first Cabinet. There were times he washed his hands of people — and times when, like so many people of great charm, he allowed himself to be charmed. Mandela initially developed a quick rapport with South African President F.W. de Klerk, which is why he later felt so betrayed when De Klerk attacked him in public.
Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them: they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. After all, he used to say, “people act in their own interest.” It was simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much. But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust was to neutralize them with charm.
10. Appearances matter — and remember to smile
When Mandela was a poor law student in Johannesburg wearing his one threadbare suit, he was taken to see Walter Sisulu. Sisulu was a real estate agent and a young leader of the ANC. Mandela saw a sophisticated and successful black man whom he could emulate. Sisulu saw the future.
Sisulu once said that his great quest in the 1950s was to turn the ANC into a mass movement; and then one day, he recalled with a smile, “a mass leader walked into my office.” Mandela was tall and handsome, an amateur boxer who carried himself with the regal air of a chief’s son. And he had a smile that was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.
We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals, but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause. As leader of the ANC’s underground military wing, he insisted that he be photographed in the proper fatigues and with a beard, and throughout his career he has been concerned about dressing appropriately for his position. George Bizos, his lawyer, remembers that he first met Mandela at an Indian tailor’s shop in the 1950s and that Mandela was the first black South African he had ever seen being fitted for a suit. Now Mandela’s uniform is a series of exuberant-print shirts that declare him the joyous grandfather of modern Africa.
When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile. For white South Africans, the smile symbolized Mandela’s lack of bitterness and suggested that he was sympathetic to them. To black voters, it said, I am the happy warrior, and we will triumph. The ubiquitous ANC election poster was simply his smiling face. “The smile,” says Ramaphosa, “was the message.”
After he emerged from prison, people would say, over and over, It is amazing that he is not bitter. There are a thousand things Nelson Mandela was bitter about, but he knew that more than anything else, he had to project the exact opposite emotion. He always said, “Forget the past”.
11. Nothing is black or white
When asked questions like this one: When you decided to suspend the armed struggle, was it because you realized you did not have the strength to overthrow the government or because you knew you could win over international opinion by choosing nonviolence? Mandela would then give a curious glance and say, “Why not both?”
The message was clear: Life is never either/or. Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears.
Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Much of this, I believe, came from living as a black man under an apartheid system that offered a daily regimen of excruciating and debilitating moral choices: Do I defer to the white boss to get the job I want and avoid a punishment? Do I carry my pass?
As a statesman, Mandela was uncommonly loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. They had helped the ANC when the U.S. still branded Mandela as a terrorist. When asked about Gaddafi and Castro, he suggested that Americans tend to see things in black and white. Every problem has many causes. While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela’s calculus was always, What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?
12. Quitting is leading too
In 1993, Mandela asked if I knew of any countries where the minimum voting age was under 18. He was presented with a rather undistinguished list: Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Iran. He nodded and uttered his highest praise: “Very good, very good.” Two weeks later, Mandela went on South African television and proposed that the voting age be lowered to 14. “He tried to sell us the idea,” recalls Ramaphosa, “but he was the only [supporter]. And he had to face the reality that it would not win the day. He accepted it with great humility. He doesn’t sulk. That was also a lesson in leadership.”
Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the least South Africa could do.
In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him — not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage. “His job was to set the course,” says Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship.” He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.
Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective. How is the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in exasperation one day, he said, “I came out mature.” There is nothing so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man.
13. Greater Good over Ego
What impresses me most about Mandela is how he always put the greater good over his ego. Imagine you were imprisoned for 27 years under harsh conditions, wouldn’t you be craving for retaliation upon your release? Mandela had many opportunities to take revenge when he became the president of South Africa. To the surprise of the black population, he did not make use of these opportunities and instead lead the country to peace.
14. Incredible Discipline
Mandela had an incredible discipline. His daily morning routine in prison started with running in place for 45 minutes, followed by 200 sit-ups and 100 finger-tips push-ups. “Discipline is Remembering What You Want,” said David Campbell. Obviously Mandela knew what he wanted and remembered it.
15. Inspiring People through Acknowledgment
Nelson Mandela inspired people because he valued them. He would learn as much as he could about a person before meeting them. It is said that he learned all the names and talents of the Springboks team when he brought the rugby world cup to South Africa in 1995. Although Mandela was very focused when at work, he would interrupt whatever he was doing for impromptu meetings or greetings, and he always saw the good in others like another great African Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi.
“This was the beauty of Nelson. Just the way he walked, the way he carried himself. It lifted up the other prisoners. It lifted me up. Just to see him walk confidently.” – Eddie Daniels
16. Cultivate a deep sense of awe for human beings:
Leadership is about people, and every single person matters. Train yourself to treat everyone you come across with utmost respect and honour. Attend to each person as if they are the only ones that exist and matter at that moment.
17. Allow yourself to be inspired by the giftedness of other people:
For you to be able to inspire other people, you must have sources of inspiration for yourself. Leaders who do not have clear sources of inspiration often fail to inspire others, their organisations and communities. Practice to recognise and acknowledge the giftedness of other people. Learn to appreciate the beauty of nature and human genius in others.
18. Grow your courage:
Great Leaders have courage. Courage does not mean absence of fear. Learn to recognise your fears. This means facing the harsh or brutal realities of your situation and, nevertheless, choosing to follow what you think is the morally right course of action.
19. Lead by example. Where necessary, use words:
Great leaders have always led by example. People get inspired by and trust those who lead by example. Those who speak very well sometimes impress people. However, those who live by what they believe in always inspire others.
Do not ask of others what you are not ready to do yourself. At the end of each day, ask yourself how you are working to bridge the gap between your words and your actions. Aim to make the gap narrower each brand new day.
20. Create your own brand of leadership:
As a leader, your name must symbolise and be associated with a set of values. This is what will make you most effective. All great leaders, while being inspired by others, did it their own way. On a daily basis, make an evaluation of how your values are aligned to your words and actions. Consistently try to gauge the kind of impact you have on other people. If it is positive, do what you can to grow and consolidate that. If negative, find ways to adapt or discard it. There is a leadership style and practice that can only be performed best by you. Do it your own way.
21. Practice humility:
Great leaders practice humility. Humility is the ability to acknowledge one’s limitations and failings. Humility will attract people to you. Arrogance will not.
When you make a mistake, do not shy away from admitting that you are wrong. Do not see the world through the lenses of your title in society. Simply see yourself as a human being.
22. Learn to live with the Madiba Paradox:
Life is a mixture of hope and hopelessness, joy and pain, success and failure, vision and disillusionment. You as a leader have the task of helping others to live successfully with these apparent contradictions. Learn to live the moment. Learn to live each day as if it was your last opportunity. Learn to live with the paradox of confronting each situation without losing focus on the great opportunity that lies ahead. As a leader, train yourself to be a dealer in hope.
23. Surprise your opponents by believing in them:
There will always be people who disagree with your leadership style and what you do. Recognising and believing in the good side of everyone around you will win you friends. When you recognise the giftedness of those who consider themselves your enemies, quite often you disarm them. You win them to your side, provided this is done with honesty and goodwill. Do it for others. You must make effort to identify and acknowledge, privately and publicly, what is praiseworthy in those who oppose you.
24. Celebrate life:
Celebrating the achievements of the individuals and groups you are leading generates inspiration and invites people to achieve even more. Achievements are not usually an end in themselves. They are often a sign that we are moving closer to the kind of life we ought to live. Achievements symbolise our hope in the attainment of a better and happier future. Celebrate every positive step that an individual or a group of individuals you are leading makes. As a leader, you must create and participate in the practices and ceremonies that honour the life of the people you are privileged to serve.
25. Know when and how to make yourself replaceable:
Great leaders know how to move themselves from centre stage. They know when it is time to go so that their legacy lives on. Prepare for the time when you will leave office. Allow other people to emerge as your potential successors. Learn to be happy when those you are leading show signs that they will be better leaders than yourself. They are part of the fruits of your labour.
Although Mandela was incarcerated in Robben Island prison from 1964 to 1982 for resisting apartheid before his release and leadership of a bloodless revolution in South Africa, he wrote: “The ideals we cherish, our fondest dreams and fervent hopes may not be realized in our lifetime. But that is besides the point. The knowledge that in your day you did your duty… is in itself a rewarding experience and magnificent achievement.”
One of the greatest lessons we can learn from athletes and artists is that what we see them displaying on the pitch or stage, is more often than not, a product of many years of repeated practice. They invest more time practicing than performing. It is the same for the habits that make great leaders. They are a result of years of practicing the beliefs and actions of the leaders that inspire them. Acquiring the practices, mental and spiritual discipline that will enable us truly serve others comes from choosing, on a daily basis, to make small and yet incremental improvements in the way we relate with other people. This is also known as Kaizen in Japanese culture; and it means “…constant revision, upgrading and improvement of the status quo – progressing little by little…” If there is anything that distinguishes Mandela from other leaders, it is the fact that he makes special effort to live by what he believes in. This is what all of us are called to become.
It takes time, challenges and a great deal of work on our own hearts to grow into a mature, great leader.
How can you apply Mandela’s lessons for your on leadership development?
- Contribute to the well-being of others.
Often leaders have a big ego. However, contributing to individuals or society is so much more rewarding than running after money or status symbols. Value and acknowledge other people.
- Remember what you want.
Discipline has nothing to do with forcing yourself to do certain things. Discipline means having a vision and then consistently execute the actions that will turn your vision into a reality.
- Value others.
What do you know about the people you work with except their names? (In large organizations, often we do not even know the names…) Find out about the families of your staff, what hobbies they have, or what their life vision is.
- ‘This MBA will give me a deeper understanding of the changing business environment’ - June 5, 2017
- Pre-announcement BSN Identity Seminar, about Leadership and Personal Empowerment - May 26, 2017
- Business School Netherlands Promotes Youth Empowerment in Africa - May 25, 2017
- Netherlands Host Education Fair - May 15, 2017
- Dutch higher education attracts record 112,000 international students - May 8, 2017
- The 13 countries with the best quality education in the world, according to expats - April 21, 2017
- Business School Netherlands MBA Programmes ranked as European and Global Tier One - April 12, 2017
- 10 Ways BSN Toastmasters Can Boost Your Career - December 17, 2016
- TV and Radio host, to being Nike’s Regional Marketing Manager: Meet Algerian Amo Mariche - December 9, 2016
- Women in Africa: this is how an MBA can impact your life - December 9, 2016