8 Leadership Lessons From Nelson Mandela

Phil Dourado's picture

Nelson MandelaLead like Mandela

Over on The Practice of Leadership blog, George Ambler spots a piece in Time Magazine to coincide with Nelson Mandela's birthday (I was on holiday, so you're getting it a bit later). Richard Stengel , who worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom" has an article in Time titled “Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership”, these 8 lessons of leadership are:

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

"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 tell me 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."

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.

"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. … 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.'"

4) 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."

5) Keep your friends close - and your rivals even closer.

"Many of the guests mandela invited to the house he built in Qunu were people whom, he intimated to me, he did not wholly trust. He had 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.… 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."
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