8 lessons on leadership from Nelson Mandela

From a Richard Stengel’s article in Time.com: Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership (Thanks: Scot McKnight for the link).

Side note: Nelson Mandela obviously needs no introduction, but Richard Stengel is the managing editor of Time.com. In a previous life, I spent a day with Richard when he was on book tour in Washington, DC for his book – You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery. He’s the real deal and very down to earth; it’s one of the most pleasant days of work I’ve ever spent. Stengel’s real contribution to humanity is Nelson Mandela’s famous Long Walk to Freedom. (Most of which I read in about 48 hours one Christmas in Cape Town.)

Here are Mandela’s 8 Lessons. (In the Time article, each lesson has a fascinating story line beneath it. I’ve left a bit in to give you a flavor.)

No. 1 Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it

. . . 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.

No. 2 Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind

No. 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.”

No. 4 Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
. . . Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did.

No. 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. . .

No. 6 Appearances matter — and remember to smile

. . . The ubiquitous ANC election poster was simply his smiling face. “The smile,” says Ramaphosa, “was the message.” After he emerged from prison, people would say, over and over, It is amazing that he is not bitter. There are a thousand things Nelson Mandela was bitter about, but he knew that more than anything else, he had to project the exact opposite emotion. He always said, “Forget the past” — but I knew he never did.

No. 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. . . . Every problem has many causes. While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela’s calculus was always, What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

No. 8 Quitting is leading too
. . . He tried to sell us the idea,” [reducing voting age] recalls Ramaphosa, “but he was the only [supporter]. And he had to face the reality that it would not win the day. He accepted it with great humility. He doesn’t sulk. That was also a lesson in leadership.”

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make. . . .”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. . .

Read the whole article: Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership

2 thoughts on “8 lessons on leadership from Nelson Mandela

  1. Abdul Gani Phoplonker says:

    Being South African of Indian origin i would fully endorse the understanding of Madibas leadership.I was three times in his presence, and as he entered the room or hall,Icould feel my heart move, a sense of emotional pride seem to naturally well up.Without a word Mandela has this effect on others, an invisible vibrational link that cannot be explained, truly a trait of an exceptional leader.

  2. Ben says:

    Abdul, thanks for sharing your personal experience. I’m sure you have great memories of those encounters.

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