No-one doubts that over the course of the last century Nelson Mandela was one of the giants on the world stage. When he died in December 2013 there was a joyous celebration of his life and of his remarkable accomplishments that poured into the streets of South Africa and was instantly transmitted across the globe.
Mandela was a true leader; a transformational figure who not only inspired and motivated his own people but also hundreds of millions in other countries in the African continent and beyond.
It’s instructive, I believe, for those of us in the corporate world to evaluate his life and leadership and see what characteristics he possessed that we should embrace both for personal and business success. There are, of course, many qualities owned by this unique and complex individual who went from prisoner to president, who endured 27 years in a tiny jail cell before taking up residence in the presidential palace and then voluntarily handed over the reins of power after just one four-year term.
But let me sum up what I view as the most important and most relevant characteristics displayed by this iconic, historic figure that business leaders would do well to emulate.
Fighter: Mandela, unlike few other people in our lifetime, had the strength of his convictions almost beyond comprehension. He could easily have been released from jail many years earlier but stood firm in his beliefs. He knew what needed to be done to achieve his ultimate goal and remained steadfast until he got there. Business leaders can learn from Mandela’s consistency, dogged determination and courage to take risks.
“Includer:” The former South African leader was renowned for reaching out to include all sectors of society. As a child he’d watched tribal elders handle community problems on a consensual basis, an approach he carried with him to the presidency. Involving a wide group of people in the decision making was democracy in action and also served to make his colleagues feel appreciated and respected.
Listener and Decider: Mandela was also legendary for being open to the viewpoints of others. He would listen to all sides, often not offering an opinion of his own until the final stages of a debate. But, as the man in charge, he always reserved the right to make the final decision even if it was strikingly different from the advice given to him. At the end of the day he was the decider and took the responsibility that went along with that.
Dreamer: He was a man who dreamed the impossible dream. Yet, to him, it wasn’t impossible. He had one of the biggest goals imaginable but he didn’t flinch in his resolve to get there. He once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I always like to ask: “Why have small goals when you can work just as hard to achieve the bigger ones?”
Forgiver: We all encounter situations in business when we feel exploited or cheated; when we feel someone has taken advantage of a situation or behaved in a totally unethical manner. Mandela’s leadership, especially establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shows that it is better to move beyond bitterness, no matter how grievous the insult. Mandela taught the world the power of forgiveness. For those of us in business it is a message to remain calm and rationale. Don’t have a knee-jerk emotional reaction. Revenge is not sweet, that is karma’s job.
Honesty and Integrity: You could always trust Mandela. He said to your face what he said behind closed doors. He was ethical and consistently honest. People knew where they stood with him. In spite of the extreme challenges he faced, he never compromised his integrity.
Educator: Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He was a living example. He never stopped learning exemplified in his earlier years by the pursuit of legal qualifications (and writing exams while in jail under threat of a death sentence) and famously organizing seminars while working in the harsh conditions of the Robben Island prison. He saw equal opportunity through education.
Persuader: Mandela’s biographer Richard Stengel observing that politics is ultimately about persuasion, said that Mandela regarded himself as the Great Persuader rather than the Great Communicator. Wrote Stengel, “He will either get you through logic and argument or through charm—and usually a combination of the two. He would always rather persuade you to do something than order you to do so. But he will order you to do so if he has to.”
Persistence: Few people in the world have displayed as much persistence when confronted with so many challenges. His attitude, with which business leaders can certainly identity and aspire to follow, is encapsulated in his comment: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Charmer: Mandela was a people person. He had a likeable, charming personality and was the magnet in every room he entered. He had a genuine gift for interacting with people, caring about who they were and what they had to say. In spite of his stature he was approachable, often laughing and joking, and quickly putting people at ease. Characteristics such as these are a great asset for any business leader.
These are just some of the traits Mandela displayed throughout his 95 years and we can all learn from them. They are guiding principles that we should embrace and act on as we decide what we want our legacy to become.