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Episode 10: Bonus - 9 Lessons in Leadership from Nelson Mandela

In the previous episode, I touched on a few of the qualities that set Nelson Mandela apart from other revolutionaries of his era. A great deal can be learned from studying his example. In this short bonus episode, I’ll discuss 9 specific principles and attributes that made Nelson Mandela truly one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century. Click here to listen to the full podcast episode.

  1. Choose service over self - As a young lawyer, Nelson Mandela took the cases that no one else wanted, representing victims of racial discrimination and brutality. These clients could rarely afford to pay and his advocacy on their behalf led the apartheid-era government to nearly destroy his law practice. Mandela was willing to sacrifice his business to help those who were most helpless.

  2. Confront your enemy directly and do not back down - In his 1963 trial for “conspiracy” and “sabotage,” Mandela chose to act as his own attorney. He then proceeded to make the case against apartheid before the eyes of the whole world. In his closing argument, he addressed the judge saying that this is “an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my Lord (addressing the judge), if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He proved that apartheid was immoral and then he challenged the judge to sentence him to death for fighting for a cause that he knew was just. The judge relented and spared Mandela’s life.

  3. Never compromise your ideals for short-term gains - At various times during his 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was offered conditional release if he would renounce his opposition to the white South African government. Every time, he refused to sell out his cause in order to gain his freedom. Eventually he was released without conditions, and shortly there after that, he was elected the first president of a free South Africa.

  4. Size up your opponent, and know who you can do business with and who you can’t- Mandela was an astute judge of character. In prison, he sized up his guards and determined which ones were open his message. He eventually befriended them and won many of them over to his cause. In much the same way, he sized up president F.W. de Klerk and determined that he could do business with him. They worked together to dismantle apartheid, eventually jointly winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

  5. Choose collaboration over retaliation - When the tables were turned and Nelson Mandela had the upper hand, he didn’t seek to drive whites out of government, or take away their businesses and their jobs. As president, Mandela went out of his way to assure white civil servants that they would still have job security and his cabinet included many veterans of the previous white government. This included his predecessor as president F.W. Deklerk who served as deputy president under Mandela. Nelson Mandela put it this way saying “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

  6. Know when to apply pressure and know when to dial it back - Throughout the CODESA Talks with the white government, Mandela made clear which issues were deal-breakers and that he wasn’t afraid to walk away from the bargaining table. Following the Boipatong Massacre, Mandela abruptly ended negotiations with F.W. de Klerk and instead called for a special session of the United Nations to apply pressure on South Africa’s government and hasten the end of apartheid. On the other hand, after the assassination of black politician Chris Hani, rioters filled the streets calling for an outright revolution, but Mandela went on television and pleaded with his followers not to give in to the temptation to exact revenge and resort to violence. He was able to prevent bloodshed and resume negotiations to end apartheid.

  7. Unite instead of dividing - Once apartheid was abolished, Nelson Mandela deliberately abandoned the “us vs them” mentality in favor bringing his country together and moving forward as one. He took it upon himself to be the best example of post Apartheid, post-racialist harmony. Mandela inspired unity and national pride in his people through the use of powerful symbols like the 1995 Rugby World Cup and his own Inauguration where he gave his former jailers a place of honor. Ordinary South Africans concluded that if their president who had been jailed for 27 years could let go of old hostilities and treat his former enemies with dignity and respect, then they could too.

  8. “Until you change yourself, you cannot change others” - One of the most impressive qualities he possessed was a willingness and ability transform his thinking in light of new information. Mandela had been a socialist most of his life, but his thinking took a sharp turn when he was released from prison and learned about what decades of socialism had done to the former states of the Soviet Union. He became an enthusiastic proponent of free-market capitalism, saying “money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will.”

  9. Forgive - It’s as simple as that. This was key to what made Nelson Mandela not just an exceptional leader but an exceptional human being. He said “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” He never sought retribution or revenge because he knew it would benefit no one. He proved that forgiveness is power.

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