Leadership the Mandela Way – Ten Practical Tips

Leadership the Mandela Way – Ten Practical Tips

"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination” ~ Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

For centuries the world has been inspired by great leaders who have stood out from their counterparts for many different reasons. Based on these remarkable people, management textbooks and training courses are crammed with insight into strong leadership styles and traits. In South Africa, however, we’ve been blessed by a unique individual who led the country and also inspired people from all walks of life globally – Nelson Mandela.

Described as one of the greatest and wisest leaders the world ever knew, Nelson Mandela’s leadership style was tactical, moral and motivating. Leadership for Madiba was a practical thing and is something he worked hard at all his life. He analysed world leaders like Abraham Lincoln, read widely, including books like ‘The Art of War’ and engaged actively with children, community leaders, politicians and captains of industry. Whether you’re a young student or an ambitious business leader, Madiba’s approach to leadership can teach you something valuable. Here are ten practical tips from Mandela:


1. Be seen as a strong leader: Being courageous and leading from the front was very important and Nelson Mandela mastered the art of reading the moment and responding accordingly. You have to be seen leading, even if you act a little at first.

2. Empower others to lead: Leading from behind is a concept that is age old but holds true. Choose a strong team, guide them, delegate and let them lead strongly too.

3. Identify your key driving force: Know exactly what drives you, what you stand for and what you’re willing to fight for. Be it profit, market share, growth or equal opportunities, don’t lose sight of this factor.

4. Dress the part: Don’t be naive in thinking that first impressions don't matter, even if you’re a world-renowned global leader. Nelson Mandela spent hours exercising, researching and planning his wardrobe meticulously to look the part. Know what role you’re playing and dress appropriately.

5. Keep your rivals close: Accept that your rivals will always oppose you and keep your enemies close. Be willing to engage with them and follow their every move. If you win a round of the battle, don't gloat but rather let them save face.

6. Look to the horizon: Rather than seeking quick-fix solutions, make decisions that have long-term benefits. Don't be fooled by the constant illusion of urgency and appreciate that some decisions need to be carefully thought out rather than being rushed into. Sometimes it’s the direction of the decision that matters, not the velocity.

7. Know when to say “No”: Be clear when saying “No” and mean it when you say it.

8. Keep an open mind: When making a decision about two different options, consider the possibility of choosing both. This will force you to think outside the box and come up with creative rather than predictable solutions.

9. Leadership is a people’s game: Respect others, behave honourably and look for the best in everyone. Assume that others will act with integrity, tap into people’s expertise and make them your allies. Nelson Mandela made a conscious effort to greet people first before they greeted him and openly showed an interest in everyone he met, famous or not.

10. Tend your own garden: Nelson Mandela had a passion for gardening and saw working the soil as his retreat and as a welcome escape from the demands of life. Find your own garden by discovering a personal interest or passion that will nourish your soul and help you escape from life’s ongoing pressures. Playing the guitar has become my garden and place of solace – what’s yours? Commit time and energy to your garden no matter how busy or tired you are so that you never have to regret anything. Nelson Mandela remarked that his greatest regret in life is not having spent enough time with his family - learn this simple lesson from a man who has done so much and achieved so many great and noble things.

Many leadership theories point to the fact that leaders are born and cannot be made. Nelson Mandela is a true example of how measured living and a true focus can build profound leadership capabilities.

This article was inspired by: Mandela's Way - Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel