7 Reasons Why Nelson Mandela Was a Great Leader

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By: Matshona Dhliwayo

Nelson Mandela, or “Madiba,” as he was affectionately known, is arguably the most famous African.  A man who gave so much for his people, even his harshest critics agree he was irrefutably an extraordinary man.

But, what made him stand out from numerous other statesmen around the world?  Why is he immortalized while many of his contemporaries, even some who arguably achieved more, have slipped into the dustbin of history?  After studying him rigorously, below are seven reasons why he was a remarkable leader:

  1. Self-sacrifice — A Messiah-like figure to his people, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his precious life in prison on Robben Island, hammering on rocks in the scorching heat during the day, only to retire to a tiny eight-by-seven-foot concrete cell with only a straw mat to sleep on. When he was offered freedom in 1985, he refused, saying: “I cannot and will not give any undertaking, at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.  Your freedom and mine cannot be separated!”
  2. Compassion — It is easy to forgive a stranger, and easier to forgive a friend, but how difficult it is to forgive an enemy. Nelson Mandela forgave his greatest adversary, the Apartheid government, which not only caused tremendous suffering to himself and his family but also to his countrymen.  He could have demanded the heads of those who murdered thousands of innocent indigenous South Africans, but he chose the higher route instead.  Setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he left a legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation, not only for his people but also for the world.
  3. He Was a Learner — While in prison, he not only threw himself into the routine of daily exercise, but he also read smuggled books as much as he could. A lover of learning, although he was restricted from access to political books he liked, he ordered books on gardening and horticulture, eventually cultivating food that fed not only his fellow prisoners but also prison officials.

    He also continued his legal education while in prison, often giving legal advice to both prisoners and prison staff.  His zest for learning and teaching was so great that Robben Island became known as “Nelson Mandela University.”

  1. Ethical — In today’s increasingly competitive world, people care less about how you acquire money, power, and wealth, just as long as you amass them. Mandela, on the other hand, put people and honor before worldly gain.  At a time when most African presidents were corruptly amassing fortunes during their tenures, Mandela’s estate was roughly just US $2.9 million.  And, he not only left money for his family but for his staff as well.
  2. He Was a Unifier — As the old adage goes, “United we stand, divided we fall.” When Mandela took power, he sought to bring whites, blacks, and other minorities together.  Some expected him to favor blacks, particularly those from his Xhosa tribe, but because of his vision for a rainbow nation, South Africa is currently benefiting from its rich diversity economically, intellectually, and culturally.

    The last president of Apartheid-era South Africa, F.W. Deklerk, hailed Nelson Mandela as a “great unifier” who displayed a “remarkable lack of bitterness.”

  1. He Was a Servant — He focused on the needs of others, not his own, listening to those who society had ignored and sought out those who society had cast away. He served the poor and the rich; he served the educated and the illiterate.  There is no one Mandela did not care for.  He saw everyone as his brother and sister—even his enemies.  While rulers all over the world were busy empowering themselves and their friends, he was busy empowering his people.
  2. He Was Human — The media put him on a pedestal, classifying him as an infallible saint—an incorrigible angel who could do no wrong. He became a man of mythical proportions to many in Africa and all over the world.  The reality, however, was far from it; Mandela himself never denied his humanity, given to the same weaknesses as everyone else.  His first marriage broke down, and so did his second; he was unable to balance being a leader in the home and in the nation.  He also failed to raise the kind of children befitting a man of his nobility.  He said in an interview, “My first task when I came out was to destroy that myth that I was something other than an ordinary human being.”  In the end, although disappointing, people were still drawn to him.  In fact, his humanity made him even more appealing.

In addition to all of the tips above, below are 15 leadership insights extracted from my books to help you become a great leader too. 

  1. A hunter’s meal is in proportion to his skill.
  2. If you follow the herd, people may mistake you for a cow.
  3. One who fishes in shallow waters limits the kind of fish he can catch.
  4. If you feed a bird, you don’t have to force it to come to you.
  5. Don’t waste time watering a weed hoping to transform it into a flower.
  6. The sun does not rise abruptly but perseveres until it rules the sky.
  7. A lion does not earn its crown quarreling with sheep.
  8. Stand alone when it is to your benefit, with others when it is to your advantage, and with everyone when it is to your empowerment.
  9. An army of disciplined sheep is greater than an army of undisciplined wolves.
  10. Don’t poison a river whose fish you might need tomorrow.
  11. Fortune hides behind the action.
  12. A bee does not need to follow you to give you honey: you follow it. Become a person of value, and you too won’t have to beg anyone to follow you.
  13. If an eagle is teaching you to fly, ignore the advice of turkeys.
  14. An ambitious wolf will rise above a complacent lion.
  15. A shark does not ask for permission to rule the waters.
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