Jamie Wilson

Learning From Mandela

Jamie Wilson, Senior Communications Specialist, POD

Few would have blamed Nelson Mandela had he emerged from twenty-seven years of imprisonment a defeated and embittered man; instead, he was able to overcome the past—his own and his country’s—and negotiate with the all-white government to end apartheid and hold the first democratic elections in South Africa. Although most of us probably feel far-removed from such an iconic leader and his historic achievements, even the most ordinary of leaders can benefit from honing three attributes that contributed to Mandela’s success: self-mastery, empathy, and pragmatic idealism.


"He was prudent, with an evident self-mastery. He demonstrated unquestioned integrity, mastering rather than being overcome by his lengthy incarceration and the inhumanity and indignity associated with many of its aspects" (Rotberg).

In prison, Nelson Mandela mastered himself. As he explained in a 2001 interview with Oprah Winfrey, "in a single cell in prison, I had time to think. I had a clear view of my past and present, and I found that my past left much to be desired, both in regard to my relations with other humans and in developing personal worth."

While hopefully none of us will spend decades as a political prisoner and live in a system as oppressive as apartheid, according to business coach John Sadowsky, that’s beside the point. Sadowsky argues that although people tend to believe that "outstanding leaders in any field have something extraordinary in their past that has somehow forged them, transformed them, and prepared them for leadership roles," in fact "great leaders do not have extraordinary pasts. What they do have is an extraordinary ability to learn from and to use their pasts."

Almost every day, leaders are faced with challenges, big and small, and their response may be thoughtful and carefully weighed, rash and reactionary, or somewhere in between. It seems there’s seldom time to reflect on our successful, and not-so-successful, leadership efforts in order to transform ourselves. Yet Mandela illustrates how crucial self-reflection—combined with a willingness to change and to grow—is for a leader.

Another hallmark of Mandela’s self-mastery was how he presented himself to the world. According to Mandela, "In the classic Greek plays I studied in prison, I found the notions that character could be judged by how one confronted difficult situations and that a hero was a person who did not break even under the most challenging circumstances" (Ansbro). Indeed, many lauded Mandela’s unflappable nature, extraordinary calm, and serene demeanor.

Much has been made of Mandela’s lack of bitterness towards his oppressors and about his decades of imprisonment. However, Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela on his autobiography, argues that "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."

In the 1980s, the South African government used the violence and poverty found in predominantly black areas as evidence that blacks could not rule themselves (even though the violence and poverty was due in large part to the system of apartheid the government created). Mandela’s image was in stark contrast to how the white government characterized blacks. Consequently, what the world saw in Mandela was a legitimate leader whom Prime Minister de Klerk and others in the white-controlled government could negotiate with.

Mandela’s bearing also had a positive effect on his comrades. According to Stengel, Mandela learned to put up a front in prison. "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."

Mandela seemed to have intrinsically understood that how he presented himself to the outside world would have great impact—and it did. What leaders can take away from this is how much their words, demeanor, and body language can positively affect their employees, inspire confidence, and position them for success (or do just the opposite).

A final element of Mandela’s self-mastery was his maturity. According to Stengel, "The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional, headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and disciplined. I often asked him how the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in exasperation one day, he said, ‘I came out mature.’"

Mandela’s maturity as a person and as a leader benefitted him in myriad ways. He had a quiet self-assurance that commanded respect, and he was known for being a wonderful listener, comfortable with contradiction and dissention, and consultative in his approach. It’s hard to imagine a leader who is "emotional," "headstrong," or "easily stung" excelling in those areas. Leaders who think of leadership development solely as learning to manage others may miss opportunities for personal growth that could be key to advancing their leadership capabilities and potential.


"He became Nelson Mandela the consummate leader by trial and error, but also as a result of a deep empathic sensitivity to colleagues, rivals, and persons of all backgrounds" (Rotberg).

Leaders might not see empathy as a potential area of strength, but Mandela’s ability to relate to others and identify with their feelings was a tremendous source of power and contributed to his being able to partner with his oppressors and unite the people of South Africa.

Mandela had a gift for seeing the humanity in everyone, including his oppressors, and consequently was an exceptional bridge-builder. During the Treason Trial of 1956–61, "Mandela affirmed the humanity of his accusers. On an individual level, he returned courtesy with courtesy, and respect with respect" (Rotberg). In prison, "he worked hard to get to know his mostly Afrikaner guards…and came to view the warders as fellow victims of apartheid; after all, they had been steeped in racial animosity since infancy" (Knauer). As Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, "I regarded my role in prison not just as the leader of the ANC, but as a promoter of unity, an honest broker, a peacemaker…If I preached unity, I must act like a unifier, even at the risk of perhaps alienating some of my own colleagues."

Under his guidance, Mandela "and the other ANC leaders made a conscious decision not to harbor bitterness or a desire for personal revenge against their captors; they believed the only possibility for a future reconciliation between the races in South Africa would come through working with their oppressors rather than demonizing them" (Knauer). As leaders, we are sometimes consumed by petty rivalries or perceived slights, or by needing to stake our claim or get our share before someone else does. Mandela refused to play a winner-take-all game—which would require someone to lose—and, as a result, all of South Africa won.

Mandela’s empathy likely contributed to his highly inclusive leadership and decision-making style. That, in turn, inspired a sense of belonging and unity that many leaders would covet among their own departments or teams. We’ve all heard buzzwords like "collaboration," "teamwork," and "synergy" so often we may have forgotten how powerful true collaboration, teamwork, and synergy can be. "Mandela gave all of his people and followers a sense of belonging, a sense of being a part of a larger project that promised to uplift them spiritually if not necessarily materially. It was Mandela'’s natural gift to be a leader for all of his possible followers" (Rotberg).

Or, as President Obama said at Mandela’s memorial, "There is a word in South Africa—ubuntu—that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us." Leaders might do well to follow Mandela’s example and to ask themselves, what might be gained by truly listening to my employees? By taking the time and care to treat people as fellow human beings? By showing sincere respect for others and their ideas? By including everyone in the process? By thinking about staff members’ needs before my own?

Pragmatic Idealism

"His unwavering principle—the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement of one man, one vote—was immutable, but almost anything that helped him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic of idealists" (Stengel).

In interviews with reporters after his 1990 release from prison, Mandela explained, "We did not want to destroy the country before we freed it, and to drive the whites away would devastate the nation. I said that there was a middle ground between white fears and black hopes, and we in the ANC would find it" (Zikria). Had he and the ANC chosen revenge over reconciliation, it’s unlikely that democratic elections in South Africa would have occurred just four years after his release from prison.

While Mandela’s ideals were noble and his principles unyielding, he remained flexible and adaptive in his approach. As leaders, too often our vision becomes tunnel vision—we can see only one way to get to where we want to go. Mandela’s vision for South Africa—equality for all—was unwavering, but he wasn’t shackled by it. "He overthrew apartheid and created a nonracial democratic South Africa by knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract philosophical concepts, he would often say to me that an issue ’was not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics.‘ He is a master tactician" (Stengel).

In his negotiations with the Afrikaner government and the National Party—the very people responsible for creating the system of apartheid, imprisoning Mandela and many of his comrades, and killing many unarmed black South Africans—Mandela knew how to choose his battles. When President Botha offered to start negotiations and pardon Mandela if the ANC renounced violence and stopped their armed struggle, Mandela held strong to his principles. "I responded that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of struggle."

However, at other times, Mandela drew a surprising distinction between tactics and principles. After resuming contact with Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee in 1987, he sought the counsel of his ANC colleagues in prison and was met with some resistance. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explains that he told them he’d "discussed with Coetsee the idea of beginning talks with the government." One colleague expressed that he wasn’t against negotiations in principle but that he would have preferred that the government had initiated them. Mandela’s response? "I replied that if he was not against negotiations in principle, what did it matter who initiated them? What mattered was what they achieved, not how they started."

Leaders sometimes get caught up in turf wars and ownership, whether determining who gets the credit or where to place the blame. But Mandela wouldn’t let pride, vanity, or ego get in the way; he kept the greater good at the forefront and never lost sight of his overarching vision of equality for all.

What can leaders learn from Mandela? Master yourself first. Practice empathy towards all. Look for the middle ground between hope and fear. Hold fast to the reins of your ideals but be willing to adjust your gait and your course as needed to reach your vision.

With research assistance by Jessica A.R. Hancock.


Ansbro, J. (2004). The Credos of Eight Black Leaders: Converting Obstacles into Opportunities. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 145-83.

Knauer, K., Cadley, P., & Carr, B. (Eds.). (2013). Nelson Mandela: A Hero’s Journey 1918-2013. New York, NY: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.

Mandela, N. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Rotberg, R. (2012). Transformative Political Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sadowsky, J. (2013, July 5). “Thoughts on Nelson Mandela.” JohnSadowsky.com. Retrieved from http://www.johnsadowsky.com/thoughts-on-nelson-mandela.

Stengel, R. (2008, July 21). “Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership.” Time, 172(3), 42-48. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/o4hzn4z

Zikria, B. (2009). One Home, One Family, One Future. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

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