Leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela

by Cameron Edmond09 Dec 2013
Last week, the life of world leader and man of peace Nelson Mandela came to an end. However, his legacy will live on forever – in his home of South Africa, and abroad.
Mandela displayed tremendous leadership qualities. What can HR and business leaders learn from this man’s actions and attributes?

Do not retaliate through escalation
While situations as extreme as the ones faced by Mandela simply do not occur in the corporate world, business leaders and HR should still take note of the calm and rational responses he made to situations, such as the assassination of black leader fighting for equal rights, Chris Hani.

Paul J. H. Schoemaker, research director at Wharton University’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, highlighted Mandela’s response – again, before his rise to presidency – to the assassination. The event resulted in anger sweeping much of the country’s black population, who wanted revenge against the racist government. Sensing this, Mandela gave a speech which called for unity of blacks and whites to stand together against violence.

Such a response highlights the need for leaders to remain calm in the face of extreme situations, and to act with rationality and not out of pure emotion. To respond to a situation in an escalated way will only cause the problem to grow – the ability to remain calm and adopt a reserved response is a key asset of any leader, and HR must foster such a culture within the workplace.

Stand for the greater good, not for personal gain
Mandela announced during his 1994 speech following his election as president that he would not stand for a second term, despite that being possible under the constitution. Schoemaker accredits this with Mandela’s understanding that – despite progress – much of the business, legal, social and educational institutions needed to keep the country afloat resided in the white minority population, many of whom were leaving the country.
“Never, never and never again shall this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another…. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement,” Mandela said during his speech.

Schoemaker stated this was a move by Mandela to signal his representation of all South Africans, and a need to rise above all past injustices and to focus on a shared and democratic future.

The understanding of the greater good for the organisation over personal status or overt self-belief is something that all leaders should understand – knowing when to step aside is an important part of leading and being part of a team.

Listen and learn
Steve Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management¸ recalled in a Forbes article his meeting with Mandela in 1991, prior to his election to Prime Minister. The meeting was with Mandela, Denning, the other members of the African National Congress’ (ANC) leadership team, and Lew Preston, the then-president of the World Bank.

In the meeting, Mandela acted primarily as a mediator. When asked how everything was going, he turned to one of his associates and asked him to speak. The associate spoke primarily in Marxist and Leninist views – detailing a need to nationalise the private sector. This indicated the economic policies of the ANC, which the World Bank feared would lead to economic disaster akin to other parts of Africa.

Preston did not respond, instead turning to Denning, who reportedly spoke in vaguer terms regarding the need for development, the flow of money, the necessity of education, etc.

Mandela listened and smiled throughout all of this, and later asked if there was a way to arrange a secondment of his staff to the World Bank so they could understand ‘what was going on in the world’ – as they had been isolated for too long, and needed to see what was going on in the rest of the world and learn.
This resulted in a complete shift in the ANC’s economic policies – Mandela’s openness to new ideas and willingness to learn from others ensured the success of South Africa following his election to government.

This highlights the need for all business leaders and HR to be open to new ideas and willing to learn from others. Having a vision is great, but becoming too invested in one’s own views can lead to problems down the track, so leaders must always be open to the thoughts and opinions of others.

Image source: biography.com


  • by Paul Anthony Bernard 10/12/2013 10:15:15 AM

    Great leaders create leaders… in the wake of their example they light the path for others who choose to follow...

  • by Nuha Dafaalla 29/09/2015 9:53:25 AM


    Nuha Dafaalla
    Humanitarian support for the salvation of suffering.
    African Women are the high of inspiration amd power that make the African Women to compete the rest of the world with confidence.
    Subject: - Racism against Africa by Venezuelan government and Australian Government.
    The Racism The Racism against Africa . It’s the issue punctually we face me and my family as are being targeted intensively.
    Excellency;Hon. Amadou Bouare
    First I wish to draw your attention to the suffering and pain and the danger that became clear against the Africans more than ever before, especially organism and the world united in the form of racist politically blocs against Africans behind a modern formula of racism.
    I am one of the Africans Refugees who had resettled in Australia, but in 2004 I had started to face kind of racism and discrimination by Australian Government for a health claim for treatment after I had physical illness since 2004.I had rised that problem to many different Governmental Departments in Australia about The Health Institutions discrimination against Africans Refugees but all my complaints had been declined as well as the medical assistance to help me to be cured of that diseases had been denied by Australian Health Institutions and my family had been targeted by Australian Government since then. I had been forced to leave Australia for seeking help for my family and myself and others Africans Refugees in Australia .
    From Europe countries to South America where am suffering now more since I came here in 2010 for to get help from The previous president of Venezuela Chavez, but The Government of Venezuela had ignored my case and my health’s condition is deteriorating every day and my financial problem that made it more harder for me to get out of Venezuela to get help. During all those years I was trying very hard with new Venezuelan Government to understand and to provide
    me with some assistance but always I had been ignored again by Venezuelan Government because I was African. All I would say it was another formula of racism against Africans.
    Now my situation here in Venezuela becomes worsen and my family are facing serious problem and threat by Australian Government each step I try to take to rise my issue for assistance or help The Australian Government causes more problem and threat to my family.
    And the Government of Venezuela causes me more problems here in Venezuela . Excellences,
    I am in Venezuela in very serious problem and threat.
    I am rising to you this problem which is request urgent help and attention.
    The critical Venezuelan Economic made every one lives in Venezuela is suffering to get the initial basic needs for living and to be alive and the people here are starving, but the Venezuelan Government leads by President Maduro who is Fascist and racist who is targeting Africans that live in Venezuela. He is racist and his Government is targeting me more intensively for my rejection of the abuses against me and against Africa and for rising complaints against Venezuelan Government and Australian Government for abuses Africans, and that had caused me more difficulties and problem more than others such as not getting food as the food is distributed to residents by government stores only. And not getting medical treatment in any Hospital in Venezuela even in emergency Department .And even is making every day problem with water systematic to not run normal where I live in purpose for long months. The Venezuelan Government has targeted me in horrific way as the capacity of Government to target and can do anything against a person like me who had spoken about racism and abuses against Africans not only in Venezuela but as well the African Refugees in Australia and I had suffered for long years of torture just because I am African. Africans who are demanding their rights for living without racism against them without being targeted because were Africans. The 5 million of years of racism against Africans in the history of the past was not told to show the world why those Africans were tortured and were killed? Why the slavery was Africans? Why should Africans suffer more racism more than ever these days? Why we are being victimized by racism while the rest has their rights and their respects.
    In Venezuela I had been for many times threatened to death and had been beaten and that injury was left marks on many part of my body ,and The Venezuelan Police refused to help me and each time I plead for help The Venezuelan Police had laughed at me, and had asked me to go home with no help . I had rised that death threats to Venezuelan prosecutor but they delay me for long time without proceed my case. All evidence are available if is required.
    The Venezuelan Government is very racist against Africans and becomes very obvious That kind of unfair treatment by Venezuelan Government against Africans here in Venezuela . It’s message to Africa .That Africans are still on the Venezuelan's Vision as all African are Slaves and have no rights for living. The history in the past which showed that lives of uncounted number of Africans was lost , just because were Africans and now the suffering is increasing more than ever as the racism against Africans is obvious that The International Communities have not done yet a protocol of all Human Rights as equal.
    I am here in Venezuela and I need to get out but I need your help and assistance to provide me with hands as I do not have place to go am seeking asylum for political problem I cannot get back to my origin country Sudan and my financial condition cannot get me out from here as well my family need my help and need your help. My family is under serious threat by Australian Government of my fighting for Human Rights for African Refugees in Australia made my family a target by Australian Government.

    My family’s lives at risk and my life here as well. We need your help.
    Africans’ lives are only important for Africans themselves. There is no Human Rights for us yet, that how Africans are facing everyday threat just for us to survive is becoming more problematic. These days more racism than ever of the politicians agenda around the world which had approved The Standard For Human Rights and Equity were not applied to Africans yet. Not only inside The Political Geographic of Africa had been targeted even those who had become Refugees inside The Most Developed Societies and Countries in the world are suffering more than before.
    That why now becomes more difficult for Africans to survive and to live in peace?
    Each African needs other Africans’ hands just to survive and to be saved. We need to be united as Africans because the danger is greater everyday than ever.
    The world has built its system to protect itself with its Policies and Protocols and had left Africans behind to face more racism forever.
    Since I started to rise my voice as African for Africans Human Rights and Equity since 2004. Writing and lodging and sending letters and complaints around the world for long years. But no attention even the responses were some negative and The Australian Government had caused more problem to my family not only who are living in Australia even my family who are living in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Sudan as well.
    Your consideration for that matter is saving family and lives.
    Indeed we need your hand to assist and help of much as you could to help the family to be survived and to be saved.
    I am seeking asylum in Africa and I am desperate for medical treatment. Help me to get out from Venezuela as my situation is urgent.
    Or your suggestion of how the problem to be solve it may be useful.
    Helping my family and me and others African Refugees in Australia and in Venezuela is humanitarian sense as being human as Africans as people.
    I am looking forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.
    Thanks a lot for your time to reveal the above human tragedy and for your consideration for Humanitarian support for the salvation of suffering.
    My contact details as Telephone(00 58 42427 67734) e-mail address(roluilu@yahoo.com)
    Passport number:-Australia M2719477
    My family Names are:-
    My Mother.Fatima Awad
    Sister: ------Manal Dafaalla
    Sister-------Zahia Dafaalla
    Brother----Faris Dafaalla
    Sister---Doaa Dafaalla
    Brother-Mohammed Dafaalla
    Brother-Ahmed Dafaala
    Brother-Mahmoud Dafaala
    My niece-Ibtehal Khalifa
    My niece-Ishaa Febion
    My niece-Gozlan Yosef Al Awad
    My nephew-Ahmed Yosef Al Awad
    My niece-Mariam Faris Dafaalla
    My niece-Madenah Faris Dafaalla
    My niece-Mai Faris Dafaalla
    My nephew Aba Zaar Mahmoud Dafaala
    My Father.Ibrahim Dafaalla
    Myself Nuha Dafaalla
    Please do not let us wait so long for your hand and assistance. As your help or little of assistance may save lives. We need as Africans to be united just to be survived and to be saved amid the chaos of Nazis and racists against Africans which is become worse these days. Please do not let my family and me alone to suffer for long.
    Once again thanks for your consideration to this important request from Africans to Africans who only can care about Africans and Africa . Vive Africa, the source of human roots and humanity.
    Yours Sincerely,
    Nuha Dafaalla-----From Venezuela-Caracas-Dated on 28.Sep.2015

Most Read