Willie’s Blog Posts

What Nelson Mandela Taught the World About Leadership

By Willie Pietersen


Nelson Mandela is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most iconic leaders of the past century. His death at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013, brought forth an outpouring of  accolades for what he achieved and the legacy he left behind.

One message emerged above all others: The world will be a better place if we can carry forward Mandela’s values and not let them die with the man. So we need to take stock. What did he achieve? How did he do it? What can we learn from his life and work?

As a former CEO and now a professor at Columbia Business School who has long studied (and striven to practice) the art of leadership, these questions are of professional interest to me. As someone who was born and raised in South Africa, and witnessed the cruel injustices of apartheid first hand, they also matter to me on a deeply personal level.

What did Mandela achieve?

After spending 27 years in jail, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. The challenges he faced were daunting. Black South Africans were bitter and hostile about the decades of oppression they had suffered; whites were apprehensive about their potential loss of privilege and frightened about the likelihood of violent reprisals by the newly empowered blacks. South Africa felt like a powder keg ready to blow up.

Yet during his five years as president, Mandela led a peaceful transition from a discordant, racially segregated country to an inclusive democracy, and against all odds, ushered in a period of harmony and stability. This achievement probably has no precedent in history.

Underneath this monumental achievement lies a remarkable journey and a revealing portrait of a man’s character. Together they provide priceless and enduring lessons in leadership.

Mandela’s lessons in leadership

Nelson Mandela showed us that in order to bring about transformational change, certain leadership qualities are essential:

– Deep self-knowledge, humility, and a strong moral foundation

– Dedication to a cause larger than yourself

– A clear vision for success, supported by unwavering determination

– An ability to build trust by empathizing with the needs and concerns of others

– The personal strength to overcome bitterness and forgive one’s enemies

Together, these represent a unique combination of focus, principles, courage and compassion.

We live in a world beset by sectarian hostilities. Imagine the possibilities if political leaders everywhere could summon the moral strength to apply Nelson Mandela’s teachings.

Note: The full text of this article can be seen on my web site under the section “Author”, sub-section “Articles.”

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 11:50 AM