Nine Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela

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On December 5 of last year, Nelson Mandela joined the ranks of the 20th century’s greatest departed leaders.

Along with Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela transformed his country and the world by moving millions to courageous action. His leadership has been extolled by countless commentators and a host of world leaders. There’s nothing we can add on the first anniversary of his passing.

nelson mandelaInstead, I’d like to suggest that as 2014 draws to a close, you reflect on your leadership. Validate and draw insights into what will make you an even better leader in 2015 by reviewing the nine leadership lessons based on Mandela’s life and his own words.

I will pose a question or two to prompt your thinking. Study each idea, then practice it and test it to enhance your leadership greatness. I suggest that you do not glance through this article and move on to another topic. Explore each quotation, make a commitment, and then take deliberate action. Don’t merely intend to “get better at it” or “try to incorporate it.” Read more about each concept. Study it, search for and watch a video on it. Then practice it and practice some more until you have mastered each skill.

That will set you apart in 2015!

Mandela’s Lessons

1. Leadership Greatness Starts with You

The first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.

What behavior will you simply no longer display in 2015? Zero percent of the time. What new behavior will you make visible for everyone to see? 100 percent of the time. By December next year, will you be able to say you have transformed yourself?

2. Embrace your Credo

I’ve 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.

Have you created a compelling leadership credo with clear direction on how you intend to lead? Is this known by everyone in your environment? Do you live it every day?

3. Set Lofty Standards

There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

Keep in mind, no matter how high you aim, you will always fall short. So if you aim far beyond what you will accept, you will always reach farther than you expect. How high will you aim for 2015? Can you commit right now never to settle for less?

4. Lead by Following

A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front.

Does Mandela really think your employees are sheep? What does he mean by “letting the most nimble go out ahead”? What will you do, starting now, to give your employees a greater sense of autonomy? How can you support them in more profound ways to reach their potential?

5. Be Fair to Everyone

No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

It’s easy to sidle up to your winners, be welcome in their company, and enjoy the aura of their success. Who are your “lower ones”? What will you do to give them the attention and redirection they need? Do you know what it will take to inspire them toward better performance?

6. Speak with Your Head, Heart, and Body

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. A good head and good heart are a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special. And, since appearances matter—remember to smile.

What does Mandela mean by “language that goes to his heart”? Instead of using only data (head), what could you achieve if you occasionally asked how others feel? What fears may they hold? What do they find exciting about their job? As an intimate leader, you know what to say or write to each team member, individually. Could an appropriate quote relevant to their development needs actually help them close a gap? Next year pay more attention and do what Mandela means by “remember to smile,” everyday, perhaps every meeting.

7. Demonstrate Maturity

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. 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.

Are you ready to swear off “drinking poison” in 2015? A great part of Mandela’s greatness comes from forgiving those who imprisoned him for 27 years. Are you holding any grudges? Do you have what it takes to erase them? Do you approach all people by anticipating positive intent? How about actively approaching those you think do not like, value, or even respect you? Can you build more bridges?

8. Conquer Fear

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it— and inspiring others to move beyond it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

What fears do you have to conquer over the next 12 months? Can you take your greatest fear by the horns and subdue it? Start with the most fearsome in 2015 and then move on to the weaker obstacles to your success. Next year can bring radical change or merely incremental improvement. You choose!

9. Believe in Your People

Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not, could not, give myself up to despair. That way leads to defeat and death.

If Mandela could maintain his “sorely tested” faith in humanity, do you think you can maintain your optimism in your company, your team, and yourself? Don’t whitewash the wrong, but rather “keep moving forward.”

More Mandela Lessons

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela
Ubuntu: Leadership Lessons from Africa


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.