8 Leadership Tips from Nelson Mandela

2 Jul

As I watch the news items about Nelson Mandela’s declining health my mind often returns to one thought – We need more like this man.

I read most of Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom lying on a beach in Southern India. I couldn’t put the book down as I was captivated by his philosophy, leadership style, his cause and an exceptional analytical ability. I was so into the book that I didn’t realise that the tide had come in caught me by surprise leaving me frantically scrambling for my scattered floating possessions. Unfortunately, my copy of Long Walk to Freedom was lost to the Indian Ocean and I never was able to finish the remaining chapters.


So this week I went to my college library to find the book I’d lost so I could finish it. In my search I came across his famous speech entitled “An ideal for which I am prepared to die”. The title caught my attention and I began to read it.

This speech given in 1964 – with its dignified exposition of the tribulations of black South Africans under apartheid – was given at the dock in Mandela’s trial on charges of sabotage.

The speech was an important point in his fight for a non-racial socialist democracy and fortunately he did not have to die for his ideals. If he had, South Africa would have been deprived of a perhaps the most important in its history and the rest of us of rare world statesman.

I think we can all learn something from him, especially today’s politicians, activists and even Salvation Army Officers!

What ideals would we defend or indeed die for?

I also came across some leadership tips from Mandela, which I hope, will be interesting and helpful. The ideals for which Mandela was prepared to risk his life became in the most part a reality because of the pragmatism of his leadership. The list, which I’ve condensed, is from Richard Stengel who spent a lot of time with Mandela working together on the autobiography I carelessly lost to the Indian Ocean. So all credit to him.

1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.

Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard (in prison), 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.

2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.

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.

3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.

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. … The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favourite 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.”

5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer.

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.

6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile.

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.

7. Nothing is black or white.

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? …. Mandela’s calculus was always, what is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

8. Quitting is leading too.

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. “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”.



One Response to “8 Leadership Tips from Nelson Mandela”

  1. abeytravelerin July 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    really nice article ! All these elements are thought provoking stuff.
    cheers from Edwin

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