Mandela: 15 Pearls of Wisdom

Mr. Mandela is one of the most politically gifted individuals of all time and one of the most admired men in history. Together with other brave South Africans, he helped engineer the first peaceful, non-violent revolution in the history of the world.

“In Africa there is a concept known as ‘ubuntu’ – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.” -— Nelson Mandela, 2008.

As an anti-apartheid activist, he was tried for treason and imprisoned for 27 years. Mr. Mandela was the first South African President to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. He served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

The great man’s leadership style is embodied in a stunning new book by Time editor Richard Stengel: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage (Crown). Here are Madiba’s 15 life lessons, from the book:

Nelson Mandela on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Madiba spent 27 years in prison, most of it on Robben Island.

1. Courage is not the absence of fear
Mr. Mandela says that he learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it; that the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid. It is he who conquers that fear.

2. Be measured
It’s important to stay calm in difficult situations. This helps to defuse tensions and empowers people to act justly. In the explosive and charged atmosphere of South African politics, maturity and experience helped Mr.Mandela to develop the strength to keep a cool head and to be calm and measured in trying circumstances.

3. Lead from the front
Leaders should lead and should be seen to be strong and courageous. Be seen to be leading, even if you must act a little at first.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela — Photo: Carlo Allegri/Staff/Getty Images

4. Lead from the back
In communities where participation is voluntary, if you start telling people what to do, they will simply leave. Leading from the back requires a much quieter, more measured approach that fosters distributed ownership and responsibility. Mandela believes that if you want people to follow you, you must empower them. “It is wise,” he said, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

5. Look the part
Few people know that Mr. Mandela placed a huge measure of importance on his appearance. He practiced the famous, trademark smile that showed an absence of bitterness and anger. Carriage, bearing and self respect was a key ingredient in his fight against racism.

6. Have a core principle; everything else is tactics.
Mandela’s core principle was equal rights for all, regardless of race, creed or gender. He believed that keeping to a core principal focuses energy. In negotiations he demonstrated a willingness to compromise on any issue except his core principals.

7. See the good in others.
Many years in prison afforded Mr. Mandela the ability to see that the system of apartheid destroyed many otherwise virtuous people. In dealing with other people, he always started with the assumption of virtue, until proven otherwise.

8. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
As far back as 1960 Mandela began learning Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors. He cultivated an interest in their sports. His comrades in the African National Congress teased him about it, but he knew that in reaching an understanding of their world view he would have a more informed position, and an invaluable advantage, when negotiating with them.

9. Keep your rivals close
Mr. Mandela is possessed of an invincible charm — often used to greater effect on his rivals than on his friends. It is said that on Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, Mandela included men in his brains trust that he neither liked nor relied on. Rather, he knew that including them was an effective way of controlling them.

10. Know when to say no
Mandela could not be moved when a compromise would mean deviating from his core principals. He believes that you say “No” without ambiguity and that you do not make excuses.

11. Don’t be naïve; know the game will be long
The long years in prison helped Mandela to think in terms of “the long run.” His perspective was the “big picture.” This long-haul view gave him patience, lifted him during set-backs and it heightened the wisdom of his decisions.

Mandela's prison garden
Mandela’s prison garden on Robben Island

12. Understand that love makes the difference
Mr. Mandela encouraged his revolutionaries to be loving people, to have loving, life-long relationships. In this respect he leads by example.

13. To quit can also be to lead
In standing down after just the one 4-year term of office, Mr. Mandela demonstrated that it’s not about power; it is the bigger picture — a democratic society — that is more important than personal aspirations.

14. Know that it’s always both
Mandela recognised that it’s not always one or the other. His ability to see the shades of gray in a given situation, and the implied contradictions, made him more compassionate towards his adversaries.

15. Find your own garden
During his long years in prison, Mr. Mandela established and then lovingly tended his own vegetable garden. This activity afforded some contemplative space where he could cultivate, not just beautiful plants, but inner peace. “Everyone should have a garden,” he says.

One Reply to “Mandela: 15 Pearls of Wisdom”

  1. Hi John

    Great article about a great man.

    This is exactly the kind of leadership that we need again South Africa today. I’m inherently an optimist. However, I am aware of the pervasive negativity that has seemingly taken hold of so many ordinary South Africans.

    It would be fantastic if our current crop of leaders could be reminded of the simple wisdom of something as profound as “Lead from the front” yet also “Lead from the back”.


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