Three Aspects of Mandela to Guide Us All as Leaders

So much has been written about Nelson Mandela and leadership that I hesitate to add to the pile. But it’s hard not to since he so exemplifies the more highly developed human being at the core of the very best leaders. Of the many examples and behaviors, I think three are central for all leaders. These three are archetypal and apply not just to this South African icon working on the national political stage, but equally to leaders of any organization, even of units within organizations.

  1. He had an unwavering dedication to his vision (for the country) and the principles by which he chose to live.
  2. He treated those who opposed him–including those who incarcerated him for 27 years on Robbin Island–with dignity and he worked for reconciliation with them once he was freed and became President.
  3. He used the power of symbols and being a role model.

Vision. While in prison he parceled out, portion by portion, the text of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, which excoriated the government for its oppression and denial of social justice. He had a deep sense that over time he would succeed in overturning the apartheid regime led by Hendrik Verwoerd and later on Pik Botha. At one point, over two decades into his incarceration, President Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he would agree to renounce violence and any illegal actions. To accept would have meant no progress toward his vision, so he declined and remained another five years until his release under President F.W. de Klerke.

Fortunately leaders atop and within our organizations don’t have to go to prison for their vision. But the idea of having a clear end state in mind and persistently pursuing this single purpose is one of the most powerful competencies of leaders. We are drawn to managers who articulate a compelling goal and show us strive to achieve it.

Respect. Nelson Mandela was known within Robbin Island prison for the respect he showed to his guards and to fellow prisoners. With global economic sanctions starting to really bite in the late 80’s, Mandela responded to a channel opening and began slow negotiations with de Klerke’s government, understanding the pressure the President was now under. The result was his dramatic release and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to both men. Then, early in Mandela’s presidency, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as reparation and rehabilitation. It did not seek to punish. It sought to heal.

Symbolism. Who can forget that image from the film Invictus of Nelson Mandela putting on the jersey of the Springboks rugby team, up to then the hated symbol of Afrikaner subjugation. Then, as President, he made a very public call on the widow of Verwoerd, the first President of the Afrikaner state.

People watch what their leaders and managers do. Do they say quality excellence but allow shoddy work to pass muster? Do they say all employees are valued but never visit the front lines of their operation?  Do they walk their talk?

So, what is your vision for the organization you lead (or the little part of it for which you are responsible)? How do you respond to employees and peers who resist your directives and agenda? And what might be a symbolic action you could take to powerfully drive home one of your core messages or values? In other words, what is your version of a Springbok team jersey?

© 2014 – 2016, Ian Cook. All rights reserved.

Ian Cook About Ian Cook

Ian Cook, presenter and consultant, works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: For more articles and book reviews of interest to managers please go to: