What Business Leaders Can Learn From Nelson Mandela

No one doubts that throughout the past century, Nelson Mandela was a giant force on the world stage. When he died in December 2013, a joyous celebration of his life and of his remarkable accomplishments ensued and masses poured into the streets of South Africa.

Mandela was a true leader — a transformational figure, who not only inspired and motivated his people, but also hundreds of millions of people in other African countries and beyond.

It’s instructive for those of us in the corporate world to evaluate his life and leadership abilities and acknowledge the characteristics of his that we should embrace for both personal and professional success. Many of his qualities, of course, are honorable as he ascended from prisoner to president after enduring 27 years in a tiny jail cell. Then, after just a single four-year term, he handed over the reins voluntarily.

But, this iconic and important historic figure embodied several characteristics that business leaders would be wise to emulate.


Mandela stuck to his convictions to a magnitude that nearly surpasses comprehension. He could easily have been released from jail many years earlier, but stood firm in his beliefs. He knew what needed to be done to achieve his ultimate goal and remained steadfast until he could reach it. Business leaders can learn from Mandela’s consistency, dogged determination and courage to take risks.


The former South African leader was renowned for including all sectors of society. As a child, he watched tribal elders handle community problems consensually, an approach that he incorporated into his presidency. Involving a wide group of people in the decision-making process was democratic in action and also served to make his colleagues feel appreciated and respected.

Listener And Decider

Mandela was legendary for being open to the viewpoints of others. He would listen to all sides, often without offering an opinion of his own until the final stages of debate. But, as the man in charge, he always reserved the right to make the final decision — even if it was strikingly different from the advice given to him. Ultimately, he was the decider and claimed the responsibility that came with it.


He was a man who dreamed an impossible dream. Yet to him, it wasn’t impossible. He had one of the biggest goals imaginable, but didn’t flinch in his resolve to get there. He once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I always like to ask: “Why have small goals when you can work just as hard to achieve the bigger ones?”


We all encounter situations in business when we feel exploited or cheated, when we feel someone has taken advantage of a situation or behaved in a totally unethical manner.

Mandela’s leadership, especially in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shows that it is better to move beyond bitterness, no matter how grievous the insult. Mandela taught the world the power of forgiveness. This is a message to remain calm and rational — don’t have a knee-jerk emotional reaction. Revenge is not sweet — let karma do that job.

Honesty and Integrity

You could always trust Mandela to say to your face what he would say behind closed doors. He was ethical and consistently honest. People knew where they stood with him. In spite of the extreme challenges he faced, he never compromised his integrity.


Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” He was a living example. He famously organized seminars while working in the harsh conditions of the Robben Island prison. He saw equal opportunity through education.


Mandela’s biographer Richard Stengel observed that politics is ultimately about persuasion and said that Mandela regarded himself as the Great Persuader rather than the Great Communicator. Stengel wrote, “He will either get you through logic and argument or through charm — and usually a combination of the two. He would always rather persuade you to do something than order you to do so. But he will order you to do so if he has to.”


Few people in the world have displayed as much persistence when confronted with so many challenges. His attitude, with which business leaders can certainly identity and aspire to follow, is encapsulated in his comment, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”


Mandela was a people person. He had a genuine gift for interacting with people, caring about whom they were and what they had to say. In spite of his stature, he was approachable, often laughing and joking, and quickly put people at ease. Characteristics such as these are a great asset for any business leader.

Photo credit: WENN