Leading Forward — Leadership & Life Lessons from Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela, from a prison cell, inspired people around the world to support the anti-apartheid movement. “Free Mandela” was often shouted in protests — protests that were organized by people who never met him. But, yet, they believed in him and thus what he stood for — equality! Nelson Mandela has left us a legacy of forgiveness, reconciliation and his pledge for freedom for everybody, no matter their race or color. He will always be an inspiration to the world. In the long and cruel battle to achieve this, Nelson Mandela has taught us some invaluable life and leadership lessons.
During his long and illustrious life, Nelson Mandela experienced and faced many trials and tribulations in his fight to end Apartheid.
But the greatest legacy he will leave behind will always be the indelible mark he leaves behind in the hearts of billions of people the world over, many of whom who weren’t even born when Apartheid ended. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Colin Powell have all spoke of how Mandela influenced not just their life, but also their careers, through his persona and leadership.
There are some men who have changed the world, and Nelson Mandela was one of the most inspiring.
After his death, he left behind an indelible legacy of love. He is one of the most important, inspirational people of all time. Nelson Mandela lived an exemplary life and was extraordinarily talented. His talent includes his inspirational words that can still help us stay strong when we are going through tough times.
In leadership, character is always more important than strategy.
You rue a bad day at work or a run-in with your boss, but think of Mandela whose leaders put him in prison for life. It was his ability to persevere that kept him going despite punishment designed to break his spirit, be it back-breaking work in a lime quarry or solitary confinement during his prison term.
Here are leadership and life lessons I’ve learned from Nelson Mandela that the world desperately needs right now.
To honor his legacy, I thought we’d take a look at the former president’s life, because although his path was one most of us will never have to endure, every person — no matter his/her profession or aspirations — can learn a lesson from the leader’s journey.
Nelson Mandela Lessons #1: Never Abandon Hope
Nelson Mandela had very clear objectives in that he was committed to ending apartheid and a terribly unjust society. He knew that the road would be paved with enormous difficulties. But he never gave up. Defining your goal and your objectives are essential to winning the race. Facing setbacks and failure is the most difficult part, but never give up.
It sounds cliché, I know. But there’s a good reason why this message is so often repeated.
All the greatest stories—those that inspire us the most—feature its essence at their core. And Nelson Mandela’s tale is no different. Though we all stand and fall on the battlefield of life, those who persist stand the stronger. It’s people who keep going in spite of overwhelming odds, who power through in the face of defeat and manage to reach the greatest heights. It’s them whose stories we hear about. It’s them whose fortitude we admire. It’s them who become our role models.
The people who persevere and push through the difficulties in life are the ones who ultimately accomplish what they set out to achieve.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years — 27 years! — in prison for fighting against the apartheid government in South Africa. Upon his release, he went on to become the country’s president through its first democratic election. And, after his term, he spent his life tirelessly campaigning for peace and equality. Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.
When you find a cause worth fighting for you become passionate and passion fuels the fires of perseverance.
Opposed to the policies of his country’s white minority government, Nelson Mandela led a non-violent action against apartheid in South Africa. It was a choice that landed him in prison for 27 years. He emerged from incarceration and became South Africa’s first ever black president. It was the first time Mandela himself was able to vote in his own country. As with most innovators, Mandela’s road to change was paved with enormous challenges, but he never gave up the fight. His passion for the cause was bigger than the bitterness and shame of his failures.
When you become engaged in something you deeply believe in, your energy rises and you become a magnet for people who share the same convictions.
Adapt your strategies and tactics but remain faithful to the cause. Rallying against all odds, Nelson Mandela fervently believed that giving up was not an option. During his close to three decades of incarceration, he did not give up; he came out of it stronger than ever before and triumphed in his battle against oppression. Any good leader needs to truly assume the mantle of leadership by winning the battle against losing morale. A strong leadership leads to a strong team. And a strong team is the foundation of a successful team.
Nelson Mandela Lessons #2: Violence Is Not The Answer
Nelson Mandela was sentenced to prison for life (and served 27 years) because he and the ANC party had adopted a Marxist strategy of sabotage and violence in the fight for justice. After his release, he did not altogether renounce this policy. It was kept in reserve. Reconciliation and negotiation were far more effective and powerful weapons and that should never be forgotten. He had the intelligence not to let the past of bitterness and resentment restrict him. Four years of tough negotiations with President de Klerk were rewarded with success and the joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Violence is not necessary to achieve social justice.
One of Mandela’s leading policies throughout his life was pacifism and non-violence. He constantly applied the principles of peaceful resistance, previously used with great success by Gandhi. And while there was a time when he did engage in militant strategies to sabotage the government following the Shaperville Massacre, his greatest results and success came after he was released from prison, whereby he peacefully suppressed apartheid and became his nation’s leader.
A greatest lesson I learned from the life of Nelson Mandela is great leaders lead with love.
When I think about great leaders such as Nelson Mandela, they manifest the power of love as a leader because they have learned how to really lead with love. As leaders of the 21st Century, if we are going to make an impact, we must develop the right perspective of love and learn how to truly lead with love. This foundation is what great leaders build the shared vision with their followers. Along with that, Mandela forgave his oppressors, and instead of using aggression and confrontation towards them, he rose above the din of anger to speak out about love’s virtues and healing power. If you never learn to forgive, you will always feel bad because negative emotions ruin your life. So, don’t deny yourself the chance to be and have everything you want by holding onto old hurts, failures, and resentments.
Nelson 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.
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.
The basis of good leadership is honorable character and selfless service; something Mandela had in abundance.
Great leaders have compassion and empathy for people and the betterment of their personal situations. When leaders show empathy, compassion, and understanding, it becomes easier for people to notice that they are interested in them and concerned for the greater good. And these types of leaders don’t come off as self-serving and aloof. They are genuine, sincere, and authentic. They care about those they lead and those they lead care about them.
Nelson Mandela Lessons #3: Don't Be Stubborn
Whether in politics or in relationships, compromising and negotiating are essential tools. Learn how to give and take. Nelson Mandela gave superb advice when he stated that both sides have to gain. It should ideally be a win-win situation. If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
Mandela’s policy of reconciliation allowed him to effectively end apartheid in his country. It’s all about finding common ground.
Whenever we face a foe, we must always keep in mind they too have good qualities. The idea is to focus on those things, to discover the good parts, and to appeal to their best side. It’s more effective to elicit a change through cooperation than through conflict, and in order to get others to cooperate, you need to figure out a way to make them sympathize with your cause. Attacking them is not the answer, for they will fight back. Just focus on that one area where you might agree (now or eventually), and find a way to work together, even if it’s on something mundane. This will create bonds and construct bridges, which can eventually lead to great things, as Mandela sharply showed us.
If one strategy doesn’t work, try another one.
Mandela gave up his short-lived militant path when he realized the best path was pacifism and kindness after all. There’s no shame in admitting we were wrong and correcting our mistakes: that’s a sign of intelligence, maturity, and actual commitment to our purpose. Many of the greatest minds in history have admitted they were wrong at one time or another. Nelson Mandela is among them. We can agree to disagree. We can like different football teams. We can even have different political affiliations — and still be friends. And we’ll be better for respecting and seeing the merit in perspectives other than our own.
Nothing is black or white. Mandela learned that 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. Nelson Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Compromise is not a dirty word. Let me say this again. Compromise is not a dirty word. There are really tough decisions to be made. No doubt. There are very essential principles that need to remain steadfast. Think trust and honesty. Absolutely. Standing still when our situation requires us to move forward is not a real option.
Collaboration is working together, leveraging another’s strengths and finding ways to create a better solution.
Ideas enhanced and supported by a larger group will gain in strength and momentum. Adopt a collaborative mindset and approach to the problem, challenge, choices, and decisions. Rather than focusing on a minimal compromise or just continued disagreement, focus on synergy. Given the higher goal and the different ideas, how can they be brought together in the best way and create a better-than-incremental solution? In other words, go beyond just compromise and create a better opportunity for success together. In most cases, each decision will carry risks, some pain of adjustment, and a new possibility. To get to a new, better way, you will need to compromise somehow. More importantly, you will need to collaborate and create better solution (synergy).
Nelson Mandela Lessons #4: Let Go of Your Ego
Nelson Mandela was willing to swim cross the ocean without fear of getting drowned for his people. This is an attribute missing in most of our leaders today. Most leaders care less about citizens’ welfare but Nelson Mandela lived a life of selfless service to his people and was prepared to die for his ideal of a democratic and free society whereby all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.
Good leaders lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
When his kitchen cabinet members would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical — Nelson 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. By his own words, it is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.
Great leaders lead with humility.
Mandela made a positive impact on the world are able to do so because they are not focused on themselves, they are focused on the task and people they have been purposed to serve as a leader. As leaders, if we are going to make an impact, we must be individuals who lead with humility by placing the focus of our leadership more on the task and people we have been destined to serve than our personal accolades. When this is accomplished, we will begin to see the impact of this powerful leadership lesson modeled by Nelson Mandela.
Whatever you struggle with, you should let go of your ego and focus on the bigger picture.
Nelson Mandela certainly had cause to resent his oppressors. He had cause to hate them. To fight them. To wish them the worst. But when he was released from prison in 1990, even after unjustly spending 27 years behind bars, Mandela’s immediate goal was to work with then-president F. W. de Klerk in order to negotiate an end to apartheid. He did not wage war or lead a campaign of revenge. He didn’t center the issue around himself and his woes. He simply got to work for the benefit of all South Africans, regardless of race. And it worked. He became South Africa’s first black president shortly after, the first one elected in a truly democratic, free, and multiracial election.
Ego becomes a problem when it takes over and starts to direct our every move.
Most of us would recognize what a big ego looks like in others. The impression of self-importance and entitlement is clear to see. They can be judgmental and narcissistic. In a team, an ego-driven person can be toxic, fracturing team dynamics, trust, and performance capability. When that person is the leader, it has disastrous results. The ego drives leaders away from everything they need to be outstanding. They can’t admit to mistakes, they can’t be vulnerable or honest. They can’t improve themselves and have no capacity for growth because they believe they are already perfect. They can’t see what their people need because they don’t look. They have a fixed mindset, not growth. They use any people skills they might possess to further their own ends, not to build relationships with their people.
Nelson Mandela Lessons #5: Change Begins From The Inside-out
If there was a silver lining to his years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela said it was to look in the mirror and create within himself that which he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, equality, harmony and freedom. Perhaps his most profound impact and greatest legacy was to teach us, through vivid, living, personal example, to be human before anything else.
Self-awareness is a sign of great leadership.
Nelson Mandela understood that if he was going to lead his nation out of racial discrimination and into a peaceful democracy he would have to “be the change.” He understood that this difference starts with who we are and how we land on others as leaders. His joyful and infectious character sparked hope for millions of people who want to dream big and pursue their dreams without oppressive limitations, who want to live in a world of tolerance, inclusion and hope.
Successful leaders have a heightened level of self-awareness.
They have an understanding of themselves, their behaviors and actions, and how those behaviors and actions are interpreted by, and directly impact, those they inspire or lead. Mandela had a great awareness of his way of being, his patience, calm confidence, forgiveness, and humor all helped to increase his followership – helping to gain support in achieving his goals and making a positive impact. Be proficient and competent, know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. Take responsibility and lead by example. Always be open to further growth and learning.
Self-aware leaders realize that everything can be perceived from different perspectives.
An enthusiastic leader might be considered inspiring, or pushy. A meticulous employee might be considered inefficient or thorough. Being able to look at different perspectives makes a self-aware leader more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and those of others. Self-awareness is one of the most important skills for a leader to build trust. It is a key tool to cultivate collaboration and harmony. The intention and regular focus on self-awareness will not only create better leaders, but will benefit the organization from top to bottom.
What does it mean to know yourself well? How does your “inner game” — that unspoken narrative about yourself and the world around you – affect your “public act?”
As leaders, we can be at the mercy of the interpretation of others unless they bring self-awareness and skillful self-management to their approaches. To us, the phrase “lead from within” means beginning with a commitment to growing as a person even as you set visionary direction and work to bring about superb results. For leaders of color, the work of self-awareness becomes even more important as that self-knowledge will allow for confidence and ground in your worth. This allows a leader of color to assess the risk and safety when determining if they can bring their full self to an environment.
Desmond Tutu called Nelson Mandela was a moral colossus and a global icon of forgiveness and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela taught us that change is almost always possible, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, when gutsy leaders stand together, question the unquestionable and challenge the status quo. Moving in a new direction from what has or hasn’t been working is usually a very difficult thing to do, but often necessary in order to stay relevant.
Nelson Mandela’s qualities and impact as a leader are indisputable. He was courageous and resolute. He was the pattern-breaker.
His character and visionary actions, stamina and resilience were profound. Yet, his most enduring legacy will not be the things he did, but what he didn’t do. He refused to succumb to the seductive pull of revenge and the politics of hatred that infected large parts of the anti-apartheid movement. As a consequence, South Africa was saved from a grizzly civil war that would have torn the nation apart. That will be his greatest legacy.
To demonstrate good leadership one doesn’t have to inspire a political movement.
Nelson Mandela played his role magnificently and we can learn great lessons from his life, but now it’s time for a new generation of leaders to emerge, leaders willing and motived to empower and develop other leaders to confront corruption and transform institutions for good. Being a good leader can start at home or in your office. And who knows where it may take you from there! Great leaders create great leaders. This is not only true for South Africa, its true everywhere.
The hallmark of a good leader is in the leader’s preparedness and willingness to plan for the future, the future of the organization and the future of the team.
There is no advantage in assuming that the world in which you live and work is stable and predictable. So, change is inevitable. Imagine the impact you could have if you applied these life and leadership lessons. What if there were a few more Mandelas in the world? In your own organization? In your family?
Nelson Mandela modeled great leadership. He made a difference. And he left a legacy to be proud of.
Regardless of where you live in the world, you should remember this truly great leader. Nelson Mandela will always be an inspiration to us all. We can all take his words to heart and learn from them. His actions, spirit, and wisdom will never die. What do you think about these lessons? Feel free to contribute in the comments below 🙂
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.