Nelson Mandela was a social rights activist, politician and philanthropist who became South Africa’s first Black president from 1994 to 1999. After becoming involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s, Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. Beginning in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political offenses. In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country’s apartheid system. For generations to come, Mandela will be a source of inspiration for civil rights activists worldwide. So, what can we learn from Mandela’s leadership?
Nelson Mandela experienced fear throughout his life, including the 27 years of intimidation and brutality he experienced while in prison. But he also knew not to let his fear show in a way that would endanger his cause. More important than prevailing over his own fears as an individual was the ability to stand resolute and focused as an example to generations of South Africans. He said:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
As a leader you are supposed to be a model for others, and that will often give your team the strength to triumph. And that’s precisely what Mandela learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days.
Be the last one to speak
Nelson Mandela learned to speak last from watching Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba held meetings, he would gather his men in a circle and wait until they had spoken to speak himself. This is a powerful approach because it means you don’t agree or disagree or give away what you’re thinking. Instead it allows you to understand each of the team’s perspective and it means everyone will feel like they have been heard. Mandela said:
“The chief’s job is not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. Don’t enter the debate too early.”
It is important to remember that great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people and whilst you as a leader may have some good thoughts, if the entire team are opposed to them, it is going to be hard to get everyone onboard. Mandela would hear his colleagues’ opinions and end meetings by summarizing their points and offering his own, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it. This way you are able to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.
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