14 Leadership Lessons from the Unconquerable Soul of Nelson Mandela

by Jesse Lahey on December 8, 2013

14 Leadership Lessons from the Unconquerable Soul of Nelson Mandela | EngagingLeader.com | Image courtesy of DepositPhotos.com (#18669461).

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
— from “Invictus,” a short poem by William Ernest Henley, recited by Nelson Mandela while imprisoned on Robben Island

When I was in high school, an old (it seemed to me) man named Nelson Mandela was released from prison — after serving 27 years of a life sentence for opposing the white-supremacist government of South Africa. About four years later, while I was in college, Mandela was elected president of South Africa — the first black president of a country that only a few years earlier had not considered blacks fully human, excluded them from voting, and even forbid them from congregating.

It was an incredible feat of leadership, especially considering that Mandela had not been allowed contact with the world outside the prison for most of the 27 years. When he was released, I hadn’t previously heard of him and was amazed how he was immediately recognized as the leader of the South Africa freedom movement. Of course, he had never stopped being a leader.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela doesn’t portray himself as a leader, at least not in the customary sense.

Yes, we see him give some speeches. Yes, we see him serve briefly as president of the African Nation Congress freedom-fighting organization. Yes, while in prison he is frequently the spokeperson for the small group of ANC members. Yes, after his release he negotiates the end of the severe racial-segregation policy known as “apartheid.” But mostly, we watch as Mandela works behind the scenes … facilitating conversations, listening, thinking.

Where was the charismatic visionary one would think is needed to lead the charge of freedom? Mandela didn’t lead that way. And yet his influence was so tremendous that by 1995 he was cheered by even white South Africans. When he died Thursday, he was revered as a “global symbol of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.”

Mandela was a (mostly) 20th century figure who foreshadowed the Influence 3.0 model of the 21st century. In 1994, the same year that marks the rise of Influence 3.0, Mandela was elected president of his nation and — contrary to the fears of many who assumed he would implement policies benefitting only blacks — he began uniting people of all colors.

Here are 14 lessons we can learn from Mandela’s legacy:

  • Do a lot of listening. Mandela’s first example of leadership was the regents, the traditional leaders of native Africans. “Only at the end of the meeting, as the sun was setting, would the regent speak,” Mandela observed. “His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions.”
  • Be self-aware and authentic about your flaws and mistakes. Mandela freely acknowledged that he was not immune to flattery, occasional mistakes in judgement, and other missteps.
  • Keep your eye on the long-term purpose, not personal gain or self-preservation. During his presidential election campaign, Mandela said he wouldn’t seek a second term. When he kept that promise, he bucked a trend among post-independence African leaders who clung to power, and was followed by several other African leaders who accepted election losses or term limits. “I would like to be remembered not as anyone unique or special,” he said, “but as part of a great team in this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and even centuries.”
  • Make self-sacrifices when necessary. Perhaps the greatest example of Mandela’s many sacrifices was his decision not to appeal his conviction. “I believed an appeal would undermine the moral stance we had taken,” he wrote. “We had from the first maintained that what we had done, we had done proudly, and for moral reasons.”
  • Recognize the paradox that a peripheral role can actually have greater influence than the center of attention. “My bans drove me from the center of the struggle to the sidelines, from a role that was primary to one that was peripheral.” Mandela’s subsequent imprisonment made his role even more peripheral, yet no less influential. “Lead from the back,” he said, “and let others believe they are in front.”
  • Be aware of emotions and be willing to express them publicly. “What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel,” Mandela wrote. “The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.” One outcome of expressing ambivalent feelings in particular is it inspires flexible thinking. “I, myself, had mixed emotions,” Mandela said, “for the concerns of a husband and a leader do not always coincide.”
  • Never let your mission cause you to become exclusive. “My idea was that our movement should be a great tent that included as many people as possible,” he said.
  • Never let your mission cause you to sacrifice respect for each person’s dignity and freedom. “It was the right of every man to plan his own future as he pleased and choose his role in life,” he wrote. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
  • Don’t let your mission assume greater importance than family, either personally or at the societal level. “To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy,” he said. He also discussed the importance of family at the root of societal problems: “Poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about the streets of the townships because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go to school, or no parents at home to see that they go to school, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy and to growing violence which erupts, not only politically, but everywhere.”
  • Require the team to make decisions, and then own the decisions personally. “But when it came to a decision, I was often outvoted,” he said. “Once the decision was taken, however, I would support it as wholeheartedly as any of its advocates.”
  • Insist on personal responsibility, even though it can be tempting to blame all problems on the adversaries of your cause. “He was saying that we could always blame all of our troubles on the white man,” Mandela observed about a Christian minister who visited the prison. “His message was that we must also look within ourselves and become responsible for our actions — sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agreed.”
  • Invest in your physical health. “Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity. I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life.”
  • Never let your mission cause close-mindedness. “I had always attempted to remain open to new ideas, not to reject a position because it was new or different. During our years on the island we kept up a continuing dialogue about our beliefs and ideas; we debated them, questioned them, and thereby refined them. I did not think we had stayed in one place; I believe we had evolved.”
  • Forgive and forget. FW De Klerk, Mandela’s predecessor as president of South Africa, said he was astonished by Mandela’s lack of bitterness about losing nearly three decades of his life in captivity. “Resentment,” said Mandela, “is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

What have I missed? Let us know what else you learned from the example and words of Nelson Mandela.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

  • A great tribute to a great man, Jesse. Well said and wonderful reminders of one of the best books I ever read. May we all be reminded of Mandela’s gifts in the coming days as we see his life in the news – and make commitments to apply many of the leadership lessons that can be learned from him.

    • Yes, and thank you for recommending the book when I asked about it a few months ago — it was a surprisingly good read! This is also a great time to re-watch the movie “Invictus” (one of my faves) and maybe catch some of the other movies about Mandela (which I haven’t yet seen).

      • So funny – I totally forgot that you asked.

        Yeah, that was a great movie too. I should re-watch as well!

  • Today I discovered a related article with 8 lessons of leadership from Mandela’s life, written in 2008 by Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography:
    http://www.leadershipnow.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1224

Previous post:

Next post: