The 5 Traits of Mandela Leadership

Nelson MandelaAs I write this post Nelson Mandela is in a hospital: condition serious, outlook not good. Mandela’s selfless devotion to justice and equality has made him a universal patriot for freedom. So on this 4th of July weekend as we celebrate the patriots who declared our freedom; it is apt that we look at the five leadership traits of Nelson Mandela and the freedom that it produced for his people and the people of the world.

1. Forgive and Move Forward

“We don’t have to be victims of our past”

Mandela was imprisoned by the white apartheid government for 27 years. Housed at the notorious Robben Island prison, he was threatened with violence, denied medical treatment, and separated from his family. Enduring these conditions could have easily made Mandela a bitter and vindictive man. However, he knew as a leader especially, when he assumed the mantel of power as the South African President that forgiveness for himself and his country was the only way to move forward.

Leadership Trait: No real progress can be achieved unless forgiveness is present.

2. Embrace Change Again…and Again

“I must be creative enough to find a way to change without comprising my principles”

After his African National Congress (ANC) was banned by the apartheid, South African government in 1960, Mandela advocated that the party abandon its policy of non-violence. It was his activities in support of the party’s new stance for violence that lead to his life sentence. However, while in prison Mandela studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and watched the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. He began to understand the greatest weapon in the fight for justice was the moral high ground gained though a commitment to non-violence. After coming to this conclusion Mandela faced a dilemma. The government offered to release him if he would renounce violence. While his mind had changed about the usefulness of violence Mandela knew that the key to gaining equal rights for the black majority was the threat of violence over the white minority. Politically savvy Mandela maintained his commitment to violence publicly while privately urging the ANC to fight the struggle with non-violent means.

Leadership Trait: As a leader Mandela learned to have an open mind and embrace change again and again while staying true to his core beliefs.

3. Find Things That Unite

“One team, One country”

Springbok jerseyThe country that Mandela became President of in 1994 was anything but united. Whites were afraid and untrusting of majority black rule. Blacks were not totally convinced that the new government would liberate them out of the economic shadows. The situation was tense. So how do you get 42 million people to tolerate one another? The answer: Rugby. Rugby was traditionally a white man’s game in South Africa, and the black majority population would routinely support the teams of opposing nations when the country competed internationally. However, Mandela seized upon the PR opportunity of the 1995 tournament – hosted by South Africa — to rebrand the Springbok team, whose jersey took on the colors of the new national flag. One team, one country, all would walk tall under the new flag. Mandela even demanded that the team learn the words of the new national anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, asking God to bless Africa for all of us. Although the firm underdogs, the national team was able to beat New Zealand in the final – Mandela’s single act of wearing the Springbok jersey united the nation as they all basked in the triumph of their now united South African team.

Leadership Trait: There is more that unites us than divides us. Leaders must find the things that unite us

4. Understand Your Impact

“I’m no angel”

Because he is associated with such high ideals and noble purpose Nelson Mandela has always been aware of the potential dangers of his own personality cult. He learned to talk less about “I” and more about “we,” and was determined “to be looked at as an ordinary human being.” Mandela himself has repeatedly said, “I’m no angel,” and his presidential predecessor F.W. de Klerk concurs: “He was by no means the avuncular, saint-like figure depicted today. As an opponent he could be brutal and quite unfair.” However, while people may have disagreed with the policies Mandela pursued, they don’t question his integrity. And it is his essential integrity more than his superhuman myth which makes him beloved and respected around the world.

Leadership Trait: While leaders are rarely, if ever, are confused with angels; they must know and understand the impact they have on those they lead.

5. Develop More Leaders

“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace…”

When Mandela became president of South Africa at age 75 he was acutely aware of the need to develop more leaders for the nation. With his charismatic personality and beloved status Mandela could have remained in power for life, however he served only five years. In his farewell address to the nation the president said: “We take leave so that the competent generation of lawyers, computer experts, economists, financiers, doctors, industrialists, engineers and above all ordinary workers and peasants can take our country into the new millennium.”

Leadership Trait: Leaders know that they have a limited shelf life so that they must develop and make way for others to lead.

The Bottom Line: Lead Like Mandela

Inelson-mandela-timelinen the coming days tributes to Nelson Mandela will continue to pour in. As we remember this remarkable man, let’s not make him larger life. Rather let’s pay a true tribute by “Leading Like Mandela,” incorporating his traits so that we can be at our best for those we lead.


Marben Bland is a Writer, Speaker and Strategist focused on working with emerging biotech and high tech companies. He writes the weekly How to be a LinkedIn Ninja blog, in addition to the Weekly Job Report and the Friday Commentary blog.  A popular speaker at trade shows and seminars Marben is available for strategic consulting engagements or speaking at your next event; give him a call today at 608.358.1309

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