The Leadership Elements that Made Nelson Mandela an Icon

Millions of people around the world are mourning the death last Thursday of South Africa's Nelson Mandela. His leadership skills—forged and measured under strife—are a significant reason for that.

Nelson Mandela’s strongest leadership skills were honed in dark places and against great odds as he fought, and eventually won, the battle to rid South Africa of apartheid. This week, as world leaders gather in Johannesburg to remember the icon who went from prisoner to president, we stop to consider some of his greatest leadership lessons.

Communicate forcefully: Mandela’s legacy was built on the strength of multiple speeches, including a landmark four-hour address he gave during a trial on which his freedom rested. Roughly three decades later, a speech given after his election as South Africa’s president solidified his reputation as a great orator. “We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil,” Mandela said upon his 1994 inauguration.

Embrace unlikely allies: As his calls for nonviolent resistance to apartheid as a leader of the African National Congress fell on deaf ears, Mandela found himself aligning his political interests with Communists and reluctantly embracing violence. As he noted during his 1964 trial, this was purely out of necessity. “It is true that there has often been close cooperation between the ANC and the Communist Party,” he said. “But cooperation is merely proof of a common goal—in this case the removal of white supremacy—and is not proof of a complete community of interests.” To this day, critics of his ties to communism and armed warfare persist. Even so, defenders, sometimes in unlikely places, show up by equal measure.

Understand the opponent: During his time in prison, Mandela studied his opponents and built negotiation skills by interacting with guards and fellow prisoners. He learned Afrikaans, the language of country’s white residents, urging other prisoners to follow suit. He learned the names of his jailers and endeared himself to many of them. And unlike his fellow prisoners, he focused his energy on strategy and analysis of conflict. He once described his thinking this way, according to The New York Times: “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!’ I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are, the enemy? Have you compared their strength to your strength?’ They say, ‘No, we will just attack!’” It was a practical and measured approach that he put in practice after his release.

Reject grudges: Mandela had 27 years to stew over his imprisonment. But when he got out, he didn’t use his status as a political icon on the world stage to pursue revenge. Instead, he forgave his jailers and even publicly praised them; he worked within the system that had tried to break him to improve it. In an age when political leaders seem to wear grudges like badges of honor, this attitude toward his enemies stands out.

What have you learned from Nelson Mandela? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

(photo by paul-simpson.org/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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