Leadership Lessons From Nelson Mandela

The recent passing of one of history’s most esteemed leaders brought international condolences and tributes from around the world. Nelson Mandela’s monumental struggle against Apartheid, a system of racial discrimination, brought him well-deserved recognition. America’s first black president, President Obama, might never have been president were it not for the change in perception brought in large part by Nelson Mandela.
Not surprisingly, there are many leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela that are highly applicable to business. In tribute to this remarkable man, I wish to reveal some of his noted leadership skills. These are just some of the techniques and strategies that enabled him to get the admiration not only of politicians but also of prominent people from the field of business:
Not losing sight of the big picture. While many blacks sought retribution for the injustices committed against them, Nelson Mandela correctly foresaw that in the long run, such a policy would backfire. Not only did he not embark on a vindictive rampage, but he actively sought the cooperation of those who previously oppressed him. What was more important to him was attaining stability and progress for the entire nation.
It is better to lead from behind. This famous quotation from Mandela means two things. First is that when deciding on a course of action, a leader should guide the people to the correct path by listening to their thoughts and having them propose ideas. He then carefully endorses the ideas he feels most wise. This in effect truly means they were a huge part of the decision process, unlike some interpretations that condemn “leading from behind” as a way of manipulation. Second, it means having the humility to let your followers enjoy the credit. For me, there must be a qualification in using this style in a business situation. If you are not aiming for a promotion, then it is safe not to mind where the credit is given. But if your accomplishments are to be assessed, then credit should be given where it is due.
You take the frontline when there is danger. Contrary to many leaders, this quote from Mandela showed his courage. He joined the rebellion despite putting his life in danger when it appeared that nothing else would suffice to change the government’s position. Nothing inspires confidence more than seeing your leader sharing the risks and hardships. While business leaders do not need to stake their life, their presence at the site of a critical problem would boost the morale and effectivity of the workforce.
Being persistent. Even after having spent over 27 years in prison for fighting an unjust government, Mandela never wavered in his belief to give a better life to his countrymen. His spirit was never broken and he did not surrender his principles. There are many entrepreneurs who easily lose heart in the face of setbacks. They forget that it is persistence that is the most crucial ingredient for business success.
Knowing how to develop trust. Trying to get two mortal enemies to cooperate is not an easy task, especially when so many people have died in the conflict. What he did was to emphasize the mutual benefits of working with each other. He also took care not to take action that may be misconstrued as betrayal. This was a delicate balancing act, as a reasonable action for one party may be considered a treachery by the other.
Listening with an open mind. When he became president, he already had preconceived ideas of what should be done. Despite this, he was intelligent enough to listen first to good advisers. An example of this was when he did not confiscate private property even if he was expected to do so by some of his left leaning followers. For managers who pay only lip service to listening, this is a very important lesson to take to heart. People would sooner or later know if you are sincerely listening.
Be a good public speaker. Nelson Mandela was an effective speaker who rarely failed to connect with his audience. Although not all great leaders are good speakers, most of them are. It also cannot be denied that their excellent ability to orally communicate to a large audience is one of the foundations of their success. Almost anyone in a business setting, especially leaders, would boost their career by improving their public speaking ability.
Be willing to work with people you do not like. Mandela chose to be civil even to those who were the most brutal advocates of Apartheid because he saw that he needed them to make progress. This is just as true in business where it is not always possible to choose who you have to work with. There are times when there is no other way to accomplish your objectives but through the help of people you do not like.
Knowing when to use humor. Mandela’s life and mission was as serious as can possibly be, but he realized the power of humor to accomplish certain things. However, he does not shoot from the hip. Knowing that a single wrong word could have an enormous impact, he anticipates the consequences of what he will say even if only done in jest. He has an arsenal of well-thought of one-liners, many of which have become modern classics.
Knowing when to give way to new leadership. Most leaders enjoy the perks of power too much that they do not know when they are already a liability. Like George Washington before him, Nelson Mandela decided to step down after only one term as president of South Africa. Although he was a lawyer, he believed that there were more suitable candidates for his position.
In studying the life of Nelson Mandela, you will find leadership gems that are of value not only to political leaders but also to entrepreneurs and managers. We all can draw inspiration from the noble acts of this international hero.
*Originally published by the Manila Bulletin. C-4, Sunday, January 19, 2014. Written by Ruben Anlacan, Jr. (President, BusinessCoach, Inc.) All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or copied without express written permission of the copyright holders.