Honoring Nelson Mandela’s Legacy of Leadership

A global icon of conciliatory leadership, Nelson Mandela spent 67 years fighting to achieve citizenship rights for South Africa’s majority black population. Mandela’s campaign against the apartheid government led to a 27-year imprisonment, 18 of which was spent doing hard labor at the isolated prison on Robben Island. There, he endured immense personal loss but never faltered in his courage and commitment to the greater good. 

Following decades of international outcry and sanctions, Mandela was freed in 1990. He emerged from jail prepared to lead talks with his jailers. The intense and complex negotiations that transitioned the country from apartheid to democracy required extraordinary leadership, for which Mandela and his predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. South Africa held fully democratic elections in 1994 with millions of people turning out to cast their vote, most for the very first time, and Mandela was duly elected the country’s first black president. 

In commemoration of Mandela Day and his 100th birthday today, we share seven life principles embraced by Mandela and challenge you to apply these basic values to your own leadership.

1. Use every opportunity for growth.

The first in his family to attend school, Mandela was an eager learner. He used the long years spent in prison to complete his studies and encouraged fellow inmates to do the same—so much so the prison became known as “The Nelson Mandela University.” Mandela frequently stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

2. Take personal responsibility. 

Mandela refused to be a victim or wait for others to act. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress and began his long campaign for freedom. He and friend Oliver Tambo established the first black law practice in South Africa offering legal advice to those who couldn’t afford it. Once democracy was achieved, Mandela dedicated much of his life to fighting poverty and AIDS. Finally, in the interest of helping solve some of the world’s most difficult humanitarian problems, he and his wife Graca Machel co-founded The Elders, a council of respected international leaders that included Kofi Annan, President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

3. Have clarity of purpose.

Defining his purpose as the achievement of democracy for his fellow countrymen and allowing that to define his life is what gave Mandela the courage to endure persecution. At his trial for sabotage in 1964, Mandela expressed his willingness to pay the ultimate price for his purpose, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic, free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

4. Do the right thing, not the popular thing.

Mandela understood the stakes were bigger than his own ego or party line. In the months preceding his release, he debated with fellow ANC leaders on the necessity of shifting from armed confrontation to negotiation. Failure could mean civil war, leading to massive bloodshed on both sides of the conflict. He had the moral integrity to respond to the situation instead of sticking to the script. Mandela showed the same integrity in guiding the adoption of a new constitution. “The task is to keep the rights of people out of the reach of temporary majorities. Every majority is temporary, even our own party,” he said.

5. See leadership as a collective.

Mandela’s leadership was tempered with unusual humility. He saw himself as just one man in a team of leaders who contributed to the accomplishment of their mission. When credited for his accomplishments during a BBC interview, he responded, “These achievements, if there are any worthy achievements, are not the achievements of an individual. They are the achievements of a collective. Some of the men not mentioned were more resourceful than I am. Our people have celebrated me so I have to try my best to do better than my best because of that.” 

6. Empower your adversary to become an ally.

In Mandela’s earlier years, South Africa was a society where racial fear and hatred had been entrenched for almost three centuries. He knew every side would need to work together to bring about a peaceful transformation. 

Mandela made this happen through three key strategies:
- Bring everyone together; not just those you agree with, but also your adversaries.
- Build trust by listening to all sides, without prescribing to each other. 
- Strengthen your adversary so he is invested with the authority to deliver what he promises. 

7. Allow hardship to make you better, not bitter.

Mandela claimed that prison made him wiser by allowing him time to contemplate his personal worth and the way in which he related to others. “I left prison more informed than when I went in, and the more informed you are, the less arrogant and aggressive you are,” he said. While in prison, Mandela lost his oldest son in a car accident. He missed seeing his children, particularly his two youngest daughters, grow up. He turned this pain into a positive, devoting most of his post-retirement years to building schools and clinics, and raising funds for vulnerable children. Instead of hating, Mandela allowed areas of personal loss to become a foundation for a style of leadership that will continue to inspire the world for many generations to come.


In recognition of his 67 years of service, the Nelson Mandela Foundation makes an annual call for people everywhere to dedicate 67 minutes of their time to volunteering within their communities and helping the needy. What are you doing to serve your community this Mandela Day?

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Born in Zimbabwe, Cheryl van den Heever is events project manager at Leadercast in charge of managing volunteers for Leadercast Live and Leadercast Women. Learn more about how you can serve fellow leaders HERE.

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