Mandela's lessons in self-leadership

The late South African president exemplified a level of self-mastery that all business leaders should aspire to, says Nigel Nicholson


The most important battles that any leader has to face are resolved in that mysterious mental space we call the self. Nelson Mandela is the most memorable and revered leader in modern history for his actions. It was his inner strength that powered his historic achievements.

This was underscored for me recently when I talked with two people in South Africa who had known him well: Mandela’s lifelong friend but political opponent Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Christo Brand, his prison guard leader for the last 15 years of his incarceration. There are lessons for us all.

Mandela was a man of iron-self-discipline, unshakeable vision and values, enormous human warmth, high intelligence and an articulate tongue. He adhered to strict ethical and strategic boundaries, yet he knew when to be flexible and meet the enemy with a smile – even an embrace. He is rightly judged to have been a very special leader. But how did he get to be that way?

Leadership is demonstrated in moments. Mandela’s example shows how it shines through when the person is confronted with a situation – a problem, a person, an opportunity – that the leader grasps and uses. Sometimes this may be with deliberation and thoughtfulness and sometimes it will be based on instinct, but in either case, it yields powerful results. The key to this is what psychologists call self-regulation.

Mental discipline and dignity

This quality was visible in Mandela’s power in and out of prison. He was the natural and unchallenged leader of political prisoners on Robben Island, as Brand told me on the boat back from the infamous prison. When Brand pitched up on Robben Island, Brand was a naïve, mild-mannered and politically ignorant 18 year-old. He scarcely knew who these top security prisoners were. He was greeted with stately courtesy by a tall lean 60-year-old black man who addressed him graciously as “Mr Brand”, spoke fluently in Afrikaans and immediately established a rapport with his captors.

Even the older political prisoners accepted Mandela’s natural authority. Brand recalls how Mandela enjoined them to maintain mental and physical discipline, getting them to follow his example of self-improvement through voracious study. He insisted that “We are not criminals but political prisoners and we must respect the guards as men doing their job and not make life difficult for them.”

This is the same moral clarity that gave his nation the truth and reconciliation process, thereby avoiding a vengeful bloodbath. Brand maintained contact with Mandela after he had become President and wrote a wonderful homage to his hero in the book, “Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend.”

I also spent some hours interviewing Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu prince and one of Mandela’s fellow freedom-fighters. Despite a political rift that sparked something close to civil war between the largely Zulu followers of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Party and Mandela’s ANC, the two remained friends to the end. Buthelezi recalls a late meeting shortly before Mandela’s death where they reminisced, and talked about their life journeys.

All leaders have goals but too many lack a compelling, noble purpose that goes beyond everyday corporate heroism or glorification

The regulated self

This again illustrates Mandela’s extraordinary ability to keep friendship and ideology separate. Most leaders speak with passion about their beliefs, finding affinity in friends and supporters. Mandela’s lesson for leadership today concerns the toughest challenge any of us faces, and especially leaders: the regulated self.

What is the self? It is hard to pin down neurologically and metaphorically. At the centre is consciousness, the node that attempts to control the flow of experience, achievement, desire, distraction and thought. Mandela’s self was crowded with powerful competing forces: deeply held beliefs, love for people and ideas – as well as the continual intrusion of hostile people and malevolent institutions.

He was forced to endure more than most, but his struggles resonate with leaders everywhere. All leaders have goals but too many lack a compelling, noble purpose that goes beyond everyday corporate heroism or glorification. What else makes Mandela’s leadership stand out?

1. We all tend to muddle facts and values, interpreting the meaning of neutral information according to our preferences and prejudices. Mandela’s reality was deeply emotional but he stood by his reason and its fundamental assumptions, impartially and without sentiment.

2. Too many leaders fight their enemies before they understand them. Mandela knew his enemies, taught himself their language, learned to enjoy their sports and tastes. He had a gift for what I call “decentring” – knowing what the world looks like through others’ eyes, especially enemies’. It gave him power to co-opt people and influence their opinions.

3. Like many leaders, Mandela segmented his life. It can impose a cost on relationships - as Mandela discovered. But elsewhere he proved how this can protect true values and principles. He loved his friends, whatever their ideology, and harmonised every aspect of living with empathic humanism.

4. When leaders face tough decisions, they often seek facts and advice. These are helpful when calculating the likely effects of decisions, but the best leaders, like Mandela, assert their right to define the framework – to shape the when and how of decisions: not being hurried by the demands of others and being prepared to wait for the right moment that will yield the best outcomes.

5. Mandela championed the values of lifelong learning with all who knew him. Leaders today are often too busy – lacking space for learning, rumination and deliberation before action.

6. Leaders need to know their leadership situation as it shifts its ground, to the point where they can say their time is done and it is time for a new person to take charge of this transformed situation, as Mandela did when he stepped down from office. This takes great perception, courage, selflessness and self-control. Mandela ended his leadership story with this inspired act. Too few leaders do likewise.

Mandela’s legacy

What happened in post-Apartheid South Africa is one of the most remarkable stories of modern times. Much of the dream has gone sour, but nonetheless among the young the rainbow nation is being born anew and can be seen on the streets of the nation’s cities. This is Mandela’s legacy, despite the abuses of power and failures of institutions in the country.

Business and professional organisations need vision. All leaders – Mandela included – have weaknesses, hot spots and deficiencies, but these do not for the most part render them unfit. Their flaws lie in self-deception, lack of true conviction and moral courage, inability to see beyond what is in their field of vision and lack of understanding of the human heart.

This renders them the captive of systems that they fail to command; it makes them fearful and cynical about radical change and lacking in confidence to assert their right to lead. Let them look to great leaders for inspiration and then back at themselves.

Comments (3)

karlokoronkwo 5 years and 22 days ago

Very lovely,educative article,full of inspiration . I love it. Thanks 5 years, 1 months and 26 days ago

Nelson Mandela epitomized “Ener-Ethics” - the value-laden energies & synergies - generative, integrative & transformative - that underpin human capacities. 5 years, 1 months and 26 days ago

Nelson Mandela epitomized “Ener-Ethics” - the value-laden energies & synergies