Nelson Mandela’s leadership tips

My longtime executive assistant, Howard, recently left RMA for a great new opportunity with the State of Colorado Department of Local Affairs. His successor, Courtney, will be a fine asset to our team and is already making a tangible difference. Howard was creative and talented in ways that we already miss; Courtney is savvy, focused and ambitious. As a nonprofit executive, you know how bittersweet such transitions can be.

But there can be wonderful side-effects when you say goodbye to a longtime colleague and begin to work with a new one. In our case, one of the people who contacted RMA with a resume for consideration for Howard’s position happened to include an essay she wrote about Nelson Mandela. I was reminded once again how wonderful Mandela’s leadership lessons are and wanted to devote a Rich TIP to them.

As Richard Stengel, the Time magazine managing editor who worked with Mandela on his autobiography, described Mandela’s leadership lessons in a June 2008 article, “They are mostly practical. Many of them stem directly from his personal experience. All of them are calibrated to cause the best kind of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the world a better place.”

Stengel’s new book, Mandela’s Way, was published earlier this year. These are based on his descriptions of Mandela’s leadership lessons.

No. 1: Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Mandela experienced fear on numerous fronts, including of course enduring 27 years of intimidation and brutality in prison. But he also knew not to let his fear show in a way that would endanger his cause. More important than prevailing over his own fears as an individual was the ability to stand resolute and focused as an example to generations of South Africans.

No. 2: Lead from the front–but don’t leave your base behind. Mandela’s lifetime of work as a politician and community organizer, tackling overwhelming odds of battling apartheid in a time when the prospect of success was both unlikely and dangerous, honed his skills as a visionary leader in the spotlight but never far from his core as a tactical leader. He never forgot who the least powerful people affected by his decisions were.

No. 3: 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 –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. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

No. 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. This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with his enemy. As we saw portrayed in the wonderful movie, “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman, Mandela studied rugby, the Afrikaners’ beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on teams and players.

No. 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. Mandela learned that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust was to neutralize them with charm.

No. 6: Appearances matter–and remember to smile. Mandela was tall and handsome, an amateur boxer who carried himself with the regal air of a chief’s son. And he had a smile that was like
the sun coming out on a cloudy day. We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals,
but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause.

No. 7: 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. Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced.

No. 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. In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him, not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent. He would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and refused to hold it hostage. He knew that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

This is excerpted and edited for length from Stengel’s article,,9171,1821659,00.html.

1 Comment

  1. Melisa
    May 23, 2012

    These are useful tips to empower leader to be more efficient in handling people and running the business as well.

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