Leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela


Two big leadership lessons can be drawn from observation of Nelson Mandela's life and time in history. The first lesson is that it takes more than a single heroic leader at the top to change the trajectory of an institution or nation. The second lesson is that in leadership, character is always more important than strategy.

Lesson 1: It takes more than a single heroic leader at the top to change the trajectory of an institution, or a nation.
Even with one of the world's most courageous and charismatic leaders at the helm, it takes more than a single generation to move the majority of a population from poverty to middle class. To transform a nation (or any large enterprise for that matter), inspiring leaders, who accept absolute personal responsibility for transforming themselves, their work, their community and the Nation are needed at every level, not only at the top.

Nearly 20 years after the end of the brutal and racist apartheid regime, South Africa's citizens are still searching for a new leadership model to carry forward Nelson Mandela's ideals amid a host of mounting problems, including rampant government corruption, an unemployment rate nearing 40 percent, poor public education, and high rates of poverty and HIV and AIDS.

These challenges can only be met by leaders with fierce resolve to tackle corruption and develop leaders who will make things happen at EVERY level of every institution in the nation. And for all of his great successes, one thing that Nelson Mandela did not do was to develop leaders around him to take his legacy forward.

The fact is, when he stepped down from office and eventually left politics, the institutions Nelson Mandela led became less. Like Mandela, other great, charismatic leaders of the last century such as Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King can inspire us to towering heights personally, but they do not necessarily provide us with a useful template for institutional transformation.

Lesson 2: In leadership, character is more important than strategy
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf once defined leadership as a potent combination of strategy and character but, he added, if you ever have to be without one, be without the strategy. This could certainly be applied to Nelson Mandela. His towering character often made up for some rather dodgy (to say the least) strategic choices.

There was his open support, for example, of Libya's ruthless and eccentric autocrat, Muammar Qaddafi, and his indecisiveness in dealing with his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, who was eventually charged with eighteen crimes including murder, kidnapping, and torture. Also, as a consequence of Mandela's flirtatious affair with Soviet Communism, (which he considered to be a suitable model for South Africa's future), South Africa came perilously close to instigating a state-run economy, including the nationalisation of major industries.

Such dubious strategies could easily have led to Mandela's political undoing and fall from grace, but his strength of character as a leader more than made up for occasional lapses of judgement.

So where did Mandela develop his remarkable resolve and character as a leader? These qualities emerged early during his school years. His anti-apartheid convictions resulted in expulsions and continuous strife with school authorities. Despite consistent misdemeanors he made it into law school, passed the bar and went on to establish the most successful black law firm in South Africa - an absolutely amazing feat in those days.

Eventually, he would serve 26 years hard labour. In his later years in prison – he was finally released in 1990 - he was offered his freedom if he would renounce his commitment to armed struggle. He refused.

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.

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. Great leaders create great leaders. This is not only true for South Africa, its true everywhere.

Rest in Peace Nelson Mandela.


About The Author

Brian Bacon
Brian Bacon

Brian Bacon is Chairman and Founder of the Oxford Leadership Academy, a UK based international leadership consultancy with offices throughout Europe, USA, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.