Mandela’s 4 Greatest Leadership Gifts

There are few leaders who can match Nelson Mandela’s monumentous contribution to the betterment of society and leadership. Even among the greats like Ghandi, Lincoln, Churchill and Martin Luther King, Mandela’s global impact is unsurpassed in our era. During the past week, as we mourn Mandela and remember his greatness, there have been countless eulogies and tributes on various aspects of his character and contribution, including his amazing ability to forgive his oppressors, his admirable tolerance and great courage in the face of enormous adversity. Even his vulnerabilities have been illuminated showing that although he was a great man, like all of us, he was human after all. As someone who has been profoundly influenced and inspired by Mandela in my own personal life and the development work I do with leaders, I would like to share what I think are the 4 greatest ‘gifts’ he has bequeathed to leaders and aspiring leaders:

Enable others to shine

Mandela was a master at putting others in the spotlight; he allowed them to shine rather than stealing their moments of pride and accomplishment. As a South African, I remember the rugby world cup of 1994 very vividly, an inspiring story recreated in 2009 in the movie Invictus starring Morgan Freeman. At the awards ceremony, Mandela was very deliberate in ensuring Francois Pienaar and the players were centre stage and received the credit they deserved. The picture of him in a Springbok rugby jersey and cap become a unifying image for the post-apartheid South Africa and helped reinforce a national sense of identity and pride among all South Africans.

Don’t dwell on the negative

Unlike many political and corporate leaders, Mandela recognised the importance of staying on the high road rather than being enticed into the vicious spiral of negative emotions and behaviours including hatred, revenge, scapegoating and blame-storming. Instead, he focused his own and his followers’ attention squarely on future possibilities and opportunities, optimising the very best in people and enabling them to discover and project the best of their strengths and characters. He was positive in his words and actions and used the term “rainbow nation”, first coined by his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to project a powerful image to unify people and help them to see beyond immediate problems, stereotypes and anger towards each other.

Set a powerful example for others to follow

In our work with leaders, we regularly use the metaphor of the ‘shadow’ that leaders cast which can be short or long and positive or negative. Mandela has demonstrated that through curiosity, continuous learning and optimising one’s strength and those of one’s followers, a leader can cast a long and positive shadow over followers and society at large. This of course involves inevitable self-sacrifice, a commitment to the overarching goals of the organisation and adaptation. As a leader, you should regularly ask yourself “What would my people say to an independent biographer about my contribution after my death/departure?” If the answer to this question isn’t positive, then you are probably not leading by example and creating a strong, durable legacy.

Have the courage to follow your convictions

Mandela was without a doubt, an incredibly courageous man. In fact, he was so courageous he was willing to die for his belief that every man should have equal rights and freedoms. Although he escaped the death penalty, he was forced to endure 27 years behind bars for standing up for what he believed in. Too many corporate leaders today are afraid of doing the right thing; rather, they end up kowtowing to shareholder demands for short-term profits and line their own pockets at the expense of longer-term growth and betterment of society. Political leaders often back down from their stated manifestos when they meet too much opposition within their own party or from the electorate. They shy away from unpopular and controversial changes and become mired in window dressing and spin politics.

Leaders like Mandela are few and far between, we have been privileged to have benefitted from his great wisdom, character and inspiration, however, now need to work hard to ensure his invaluable lessons and legacy stay fresh as we carry out our day to day leadership responsibilities. If we do this, the world will be a much better place – a place of tolerance, mutual respect, curiosity and appreciation of diversity. However, most of all, it will be a place where work and living is more meaningful and fulfilling for everyone, not just a privileged minority.

In support of Mandela’s legacy, we would encourage you to support the charity he started, the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund (NMCF), to raise money to help build a children’s hospital in South Africa. You can donate on the NMCF site at