Through his dedication to his vision of a racism-free South Africa, Nelson Mandela grew into a defining global servant-leader of the 20th century. His belief in his vision, commitment to what’s right, and dedication to his followers have made him an inspiration for leaders everywhere, to this day. Nelson Mandela’s leadership authenticity, dauntless character, and continuous focus on personal development helped him become the first black leader of his country against all possible odds.

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela.

Born on July 18, 1918, into the Thembu royal family of the Xhosa people, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became South Africa’s first black head of state in 1994 after a lifetime of anti-apartheid struggle.



Mandela’s leadership serves as an inspiration for millions of leaders.

Condemned to life in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state, Mandela spent 27 years in jail. He continued to lead the anti-apartheid movement from behind bars. In 1990, as a result of mounting public pressure, President F.W. de Klerk ended his incarceration.

From the perspective of a leadership coaching professional, Mandela’s leadership is a constant source of inspiration and positive leadership references. Many would be quick to identify leadership traits like selflessness, the ability to pursue a long-term vision, and being a good listener as keys to Mandela’s leadership genius. For the non-casual observer, however, it is clear that the roots of Mandela’s leadership success reach much deeper.

In my opinion, his character and authenticity allowed him to develop an uncanny skill for timing. He knew when to step back and lead his flock from behind and when to step forward. He knew when to give ground and when to go on the attack. He knew the optimal time for action and when to wait.



Authenticity and Character

What was the core element of character that allowed Mandela to push his authentic leadership style to success? I believe the source of his leadership genius is courage. Often, leaders understand and implement the theories of intelligent, modern leadership. When facing adverse odds and circumstances, however, they allow their survival instincts to suppress their leadership. Lacking courage, they surrender their long-term visions and principles. Mandela embodied courage. He embodied genuine leadership to which he remained faithful even with his life on the line.

For Mandela, even the pain of incarceration was a learning opportunity. “I liked Robben Island…I was happy that I went through that.” – He said of his time spent in jail. He saw pain as an integral part of human existence and learned from it. He learned how to liberate himself first and how to come to terms with mortality. He conquered one of the most basic human fears to impose his leadership and prevail.

Authenticity and character like Mandela’s allow leaders to control their fears. By staying true to their principles and visions, they can effortlessly inspire and empower their followers in the spirit of genuine leadership.



Personal Growth and Continuous Improvement

Nelson Mandela’s leadership evolution was a lifelong process. His vision of a country free of apartheid and racial prejudice was the beacon that guided and defined his leadership over the decades. A young firebrand politician at first, who was no stranger to violence and incitement to rebellion, he learned how to forgive and work with his enemies.

As his self-awareness grew, allowing him to defeat his ego, he developed a keen sense of humor, complete with self-deprecating jabs and the ability to lightheartedly laugh at and make fun of himself.

Mandela’s life was a long succession of transformative experiences. From having to fear for his life during the Rivonia trials in 1964 to the long decades he spent behind bars, he made his experiences transformative.

Even before that, he had seldom treaded the traveled roads. As a young man, he stole cattle from the Thembu regent to acquire the funds he needed to start life anew in Johannesburg.




Cattle rustling may have helped Mandela accomplish his goals.

As he admitted, when he went to prison, he was a male chauvinist, a product of his time and environment. By the time he got out, he was as staunchly anti-sexist as he had been chauvinistic before.

For a leadership coach, commitment to lifelong personal development is a goal and coaching tool. To effect inner-core changes that can spark such commitment is the privilege and duty of every teacher and coach.



Lessons for Today’s Business Leaders

Mandela’s commitment to what’s right is a timeless lesson in leadership. The first black President of South Africa never allowed unfavorable circumstances to alter his values and derail his efforts. He believed in his vision and stuck with it regardless of what haphazard advice the heat of the moment gave him.

After he came to power, he resisted pressure to exact revenge on his former adversaries, the minority white rulers of the country. Instead of turning the beloved national rugby team into an instrument of retribution, he used it to unify the deeply divided nation.

He knew when to give ground and when to show assertiveness. He knew how to heal the country and inspire its people to work together instead of petty acts of revenge that would’ve only deepened the existing fault lines.

Mandela never caved to pressure to adopt the “what’s in it for me” mentality many of today’s leaders love to espouse. He understood that his mission was to help his followers succeed in the style of a true servant leader.

The principles of servant leadership Nelson Mandela embodied and observed are among the cornerstones of the brand of intelligent leadership that modern leadership coaching promotes. A well-defined vision, predicated upon a solid system of values optimally aligned with a leader’s character, is as essential for leadership as ever.



Applying Nelson Mandela’s Wisdom

Lessons about leadership integrity abound in Nelson Mandela’s leadership and life.  Mandela realized that to set others free, first, he had to liberate himself.

By focusing on developing their leadership skills and abilities as well as leadership character, today’s corporate leaders can ensure that they are more capable of helping their followers succeed.



Servant leaders strive for improvement to help their followers.

The principles of servant leadership never go out of style. This form of intelligent leadership has always been the most effective, and Mandela’s life is a living, breathing example of it.

Those looking to incorporate Mandela’s style in their leadership can focus on setting a clear, strong vision. While course-correcting, they should always act within the framework and in the spirit of this vision to remain authentic and inspirational.

Nelson Mandela’s leadership integrity and genius are best observable in the accuracy of his timing and courage. He always knew when to go on the offensive and when to give the enemy respite. He also understood when it was time to fight and reconcile.

Stemming from the depths of his character, his courage allowed him to stay focused on his vision of a racism-free South Africa.

Authenticity, character, and a continuous focus on personal growth allowed Mandela to achieve the leadership success he did. Along these lines and principles, modern leaders can also achieve their full potential.


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