Leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela

Heartfelt tributes to Nelson Mandela have been made all over the world. People from all walks of life have been moved to talk about the affect he had on them as individuals, the way his life experiences affected their lives and many more personal and intimate observations. He was clearly a man who meant a great to deal to a great many people but he was, first and foremost, a leader. By virtue of his personality, his commitment and his personal moral compass he provided leadership and purpose to a nation and a people.

So what lessons can business leaders learn from him about how best to lead organisations and the people they employ? Here are some thoughts:

Be patient – Mandela understood that changing the political system would take time. This is not at all the same as taking it easy, and I’m sure he would have wanted change to come sooner, but he recognised that sometimes things just take longer or, less usually, shorter than you plan.  Stick with it, take the rough with the smooth and readjust your timescales as events unfold.

Be prepared to change your plans – the young Mandela was an advocate of a much more direct form of action to bring about change but altered his view during his long stay on Robben Island.  He recognised that direct action was not going to successfully bring about the change he desired and that negotiation was much more likely to the deliver the changes he desired. If the plan you set out with is not going to lead you where you want to go then be bold enough to admit it’s wrong and plot a new path. 

Have a clear vision – it is impossible to start any successful process of change without a clear idea of what it will look like when you get there.  Mandela had a clear vision of the future and was able to communicate that vision to others in simple and direct language – he understood that if you create a vision of what the future will be like it can become a compelling imperative that requires others to follow.   Stephen Covey’s second habit of an effective manager is to “start with the end in mind” and Mandela showed the real value of such an approach.

Disagree but don’t be disagreeable – the language of business can be frank and open but it need not be unpleasant.  This is not to say that there should be no passion, urgency or commitment. Everyone knows how important it is to ‘have your say’, but we equally need to understand how important it is not be needlessly and unhelpfully aggressive or demanding.  Mandela even went so far as to learn to speak Afrikaans, the language of his gaolers, in order to make communication with them clearer and less threatening.

Compromise if you have to – it is possible to compromise without being compromised. You have a list of things you want to achieve but then so do others with whom you’re doing business. You might need to concede on some issues to win concessions on something more important.  Consider it a step sideways rather than a step backwards and a more effective way of getting past a barrier.

Plan your succession – a major criticism of Mandela’s leadership was that he was not able to prepare anyone to take over from him to take his vision forward.  He believed that those who would follow him would operate to the same high standards that he set himself;  this has been demonstrated to be patently untrue.  No-one expects successors to do things the way they were done before (individuals must make their own mark) but those that come after must at least share some of the vision, passion and moral compass I noted.  If not, there is a real danger that all the good work of the past will simply go to waste.

Mandela was the first to admit that he got a lot of things wrong during his ‘long walk’ but the balance of opinion seems to suggest that as a leader he generally got more things right than wrong.  He didn’t always do the popular thing - when he began to advocate dialogue instead of armed struggle he was widely criticised for having sold out – but the strength of his commitment to his stated purpose and his own personal integrity ensured that he was able to command respect and support throughout. 

Being a leader is never easy but the rewards for getting it right are worth the difficulties you encounter in getting there.