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Mandela behind bars


What the wisdom of Mandela can teach us about leadership

IbyIMD+ Published 24 June 2022 in Magazine • 13 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. Sello Hatang and Verne Harris worked closely with the South African statesman and offer valuable personal insights into what made him a great leader.


What lessons does the leadership of Nelson Mandela offer? Not everyone can endure more than 27 years in prison. Not everyone can lead a liberation movement. Not everyone can be president. But from our years working with Madiba, we know that his example can help each of us to find the leader inside ourselves.

This is something that the two of us have discussed with each other, and many others, for years. We both had the privilege of working closely with Mandela. One of us, Verne, worked in African National Congress structures while Mandela led a complex negotiation process with the apartheid state. Both of us worked in government when Madiba was president of South Africa. Sello held a senior position in the South African Human Rights Commission at a time when Madiba was using his influence as a leader to challenge structures of power on a range of issues close to his heart. We were employees of his post-presidential office and worked on the formation of his private archive, read deeply into it, and engaged him personally in the process.

He stopped coming into the office, finally, in 2010. To the end it was his daily practice to read several newspapers and frequently we would find him at his desk visibly distressed at what he was reading. Another crisis in the governing party. Another scandal. More evidence of the work done under his leadership in the 1990s being unraveled by unscrupulous politicians, officials and business owners. His message to us in these contexts was twofold – the long walk to freedom never ends; and it is in your hands now. We must keep walking and we must keep working, no matter what obstacles present themselves. 

Arguably he understood branding better than anyone else and earlier than most. Dress was a tool of his trade, but it was also the garment of his soul

What defined Mandela’s leadership?

Attempts to identify the defining qualities of Mandela as a leader are legion. Most fall into the trap of positioning him in relation to what could be called generic attributes of leadership – vision, courage, the ability to keep one’s rivals close, and so on. In 2007, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, to its cost, did exactly this. What emerged was a compelling absence of consensus. The complexity of Mandela the human being refused to be reduced to a series of neatly labelled boxes.

The truth is that we have to dig deeper if we want to find the key to understanding his leadership. For example, most representations of his life foreground his commitment to collective leadership and his willingness to consult. And yet stories abound about moments, big and small, when he acted against advice or without it. For many interpreters of Mandela, he embodied the principle of delegation. And yet the evidence shows that in many areas of governance he was hands-on, almost a prototypical chief executive, even guilty of micromanaging at times.

We could go on endlessly with examples of complexity but the truth is that simplifying Mandela, romanticizing him, is not helpful. There is enough of that in both local and international discourses. Arguably it is this which underlies, even provokes, a counter-current discernible especially amongst younger people. What is both helpful and necessary is a willingness to engage with complex pasts and personalities.

When Mandela donated his personal archive to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, he made it clear that it was not to become the basis for a vanity project, nor were the custodians to carry the burden of protecting him. The archive was to be a public resource, the overarching purpose of which was to contribute to making the country and the world of his dreams.

What does the evidence tell us? If there is no clutch of “Mandela core leadership attributes”, then where do we find the lessons for good leadership from his life? 

As a leader, Mandela had an extraordinary sense of timing. He seemed to have an instinct for knowing when he should lead from behind, the shepherd behind his flock, and when he should be out front. He had a fine instinct for knowing when to give ground and when to take it. When to wait, when to move. Arguably his genius was that most often he got it right. Trying to explain instinct is futile, of course. It is what it is. But what is the space within which good timing and instinct are most likely to flourish?  

As a leader, Mandela had an extraordinary sense of timing. He seemed to have an instinct for knowing when he should lead from behind, the shepherd behind his flock, and when he should be out front

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The disciplines of a great leader 

For Mandela, surprisingly perhaps, consistency was the underlying quality of good leadership. As he once insisted:

“Leadership falls into two categories. Those whose actions cannot be predicted, who agree today on a major [issue] and who repudiate the following day. Those who are consistent, who have a sense of honor, a vision.”

Discipline and principle gave Mandela the space within which he crafted his genius. His daily principles of conduct, routine and practice hold the key to understanding why he became such an effective and admirable leader. These are disciplines anyone can learn. And everyone can use them to help in finding the leader within themselves.

Be a good listener 

By the time he became president of South Africa, Mandela had developed an enormous capacity to listen to others. Whether famous or unknown, accomplished or humble, those who encountered him felt they had his ear. At one level, one could argue, he simply had a genuine interest in the lives and thoughts of those he encountered. But there was a deeper, very deliberate discipline at play. He had been born in the traditions of collectivity, which prized the art of listening and demanded of everyone the respect for rituals of consultation and dialogue. Even leaders at the highest level spent more time listening than talking. When in prison he taught himself to listen intently to the voices of the enemy. He engaged at levels beyond pragmatism or courtesy with the prison warders. He chose to be interested in their lives.

Mandela could give a long speech when he felt it was needed. He could speak with great eloquence and power when the occasion demanded it, but as a rule, and as a discipline, he seldom wasted words. ‘It is never my custom to use words lightly,” he once said.

Mandela revisits his prison cell on Robben Island in 1994. He said he had liked it there. ‘It’s a totally different experience … I was happy that I went through that.’

Show compassion and humanity 

 “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Despite his long walk to freedom being full of pain and deprivation, Mandela believed in the fundamental goodness of human beings. For him, the great scourges of humanity – prejudice, hatred and greed – were learned behaviors and could be unlearned. It was easy, then, for Mandela to believe the best of another, of every other, until he was proved wrong. This discipline of generosity, fused with a long practice of comradeship in his political movement, formed the basis of his loyalty in personal relationships. Inevitably there is a shadow to this discipline. Mandela could be too loyal. He could tolerate too long the evidence of wrongdoing. He could give a second chance one too many times.

Learn from pain 

Mandela chose to see pain not as bad, but as painful. He chose to ask what he owed life rather than what life owed him. He chose to learn from pain. This was a principle which translated into a discipline of conduct. One which stood him in good stead as he took blows of unspeakable loss through an extremely long life – he lost his father at a very young age, he lost his own children, some early, some late in life, grandchildren, beloved comrades. He lost two marriages.

During his 90th year, in a quiet moment of reflection with his personal assistant Zelda la Grange, Mandela said, “I liked Robben Island … it’s a totally different experience … I was happy that I went through that.” At one level, he was expressing nostalgia for a period in his life when he had had lots of time for reading, writing and reflection. A period in which he enjoyed slow daily rhythms, an absence of clutter, and a powerful camaraderie with friends he loved. A period in which he was not yet a prisoner of his own fame. At another level, he was simply demonstrating what can be learned from pain.

Mandela and his wife
An intimate moment with his second wife Winnie, although the marriage was soon to fail

Take responsibility 

Avoiding failed endeavor is not fundamental to good leadership; taking responsibility for it is. Doing so as a principle of conduct characterized the life and work of Mandela. He understood that failing is unavoidable on any long and rocky path. One’s determination to get back up and keep going is what counts. Enormously gifted as he was, however, there were areas of his life in which failure was not uncommon for him. Two broken marriages forced him to dig deep. The challenges of part-time study in conditions of incarceration were daunting. It is widely known that Mandela completed a Bachelor’s degree, secured a postgraduate diploma in law and finished his articles. What isn’t widely known is that Mandela wanted to have a law degree, an LLB, and off and on for over four decades worked at attaining it. By the time he was finally awarded his degree by the University of South Africa in 1989 he had failed more than thirty law courses. His capacity to keep going, to work with failure, simply to endure, was extraordinary.

He knew how to bear the weight of the buck stopping with him. At the end of his presidency he acknowledged that he had not done enough to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS. A large part of his energy and time in the post-presidential period was dedicated to the fight – it was to take him into a difficult, and very public, clash with his successor, Thabo Mbeki, over policy and strategy.

He understood that failing is unavoidable on any long and rocky path. One’s determination to get back up and keep going is what counts

Liberate yourself 

Mandela was a freedom fighter. His life, was, almost quintessentially, one of service. At the same time, however, it was one of self-liberation, perhaps the most difficult of all journeys. Mandela was shaped by multiple traditions, institutions and mentors. But what he demonstrated from very early on was a capacity to test every rule taught to him and either adopt it as his own or discard it.

Crucially, in terms of his life trajectory, as a young man he made two life-changing decisions within months of each other. First, he defied the principal of the University of Fort Hare thus effectively expelling himself, and then he defied the Thembu regent when the latter informed him that he had been promised in marriage to a young woman in the kingdom. Mandela stole two oxen from the regent and used the proceeds to fund his journey to a new life in Johannesburg.

When it comes to patriarchy, Mandela was in many ways a product of his time and place. In 2005, he was to look back on his life and confess that by the age of 44, when he went into prison, he was still a male chauvinist. It took years of reading, reflection and discussion with comrades to understand this fully and to think about effective strategies for combatting sexism in all its forms.

Mandela meeting the queen
Mandela meeting Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in 1996.

Have a sense of humor 

“I like to make jokes when examining serious situations. Because when people are relaxed they can think properly … “

In later life, Mandela was renowned for his warmth and humor. He knew how to make people laugh. More importantly, he came to know how to laugh at himself. Stories of the young Mandela taking himself too seriously abound. For the older Mandela, the self-deprecating gesture, the outright joke at one’s own expense became almost tools of his trade.

Keep a record 

Throughout most of his adult life, Mandela was an obsessive creator of records. Partly it had to do with a certain obsessiveness in his character. Partly it had to do with his love for the craft of writing. He never learned to use the computer, and by and large avoided the typewriter. For him, it was about the discipline of penmanship. And partly it had to do with his understanding that record-making, like listening, gave him access to a fundamental power.

Today, the archives of the South African state contain a dense record of Mandela’s years in prison and attest to the extent to which his use of the records provided critical leverage in extracting concessions. Concessions large and small demonstrated the power of the record.

Keeping records was to become a daily discipline of extreme importance to him after his release from prison. The archive is full of his notebooks from the period 1990 to 1994, some of them customized for him, others picked up from stationery stores or hotel rooms. They became a vital tool in enabling him to stay on top of an ever-shifting reality. 

Take care of yourself 

Mandela accessed another source of essential energy, and arguably power, through a range of daily disciplines. He took care of himself. He cared about the way he looked and the way he was seen. Even in the midst of the greatest clamor as a global icon and leader of demanding processes, he had his routines and he always kept an eye on his watch. There was a deliberateness about everything he did. He detested disrespect for punctuality. Mandela always liked to be early.

Staying physically fit was a priority throughout his life. He was careful about what he ate and drank. He hardly ever indulged. Image mattered. Arguably he understood branding better than anyone else and earlier than most. Dress was a tool of his trade, but it was also the garment of his soul.  

Mandela at his trial
Mandela at his trial in 1952 when he feared receiving the death penalty

Befriend mortality 

Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trialists faced down death in 1964. They fully expected the death penalty and, as a political strategy, chose not to seek mitigation. Mortality, for them, was woven into the warp and weft of daily life.

In his twilight years, despite strong taboos against doing so, he spoke often to those around him about dying. Talking about his own mortality, at one level, was certainly about him enabling those close to him to make peace with the fact that he would not always be around. He was helping them use, if you like, a discipline of generosity. But at another level he was also demonstrating a lifetime of befriending the fact that death is always part of life. And into his nineties he honed this ancient human discipline. One of the hardest of all.

What is good leadership and what does it demand? 

In dominant discourses globally, leadership is associated primarily, if not exclusively, with the exercise of authority in relation to others. For us, leadership instead is about dynamics that reach far more widely and deeply.

Leadership is something that all human beings are called to. Leadership can also demand and involve the exercise of power in positions carrying rank in collectives (families, institutions, communities, etc.). Not everyone is called to this dimension of leadership.

Good leadership will be critical if humanity (and other species) are to thrive in the 21st century. What such leadership looks like, for us, is determined primarily by our readings of Mandela’s legacy and the theoretical framings by intersectionality, deep dialogue and deconstruction. It demands:

  • A sense of responsibility before “the other”, including the strangers within the self. A leader is “in service”, primarily to those oppressed by prevailing relations of power. Staying close to what is happening on the ground is of fundamental importance, as is listening to the needs of the most vulnerable, and, at the end of the day, looking in the mirror. 
  • An imperative to share something lasting: a leader nurtures what will follow, cares about legacies of liberation, seeks to empower the next generation and steps aside long before anyone compels them to. One measure of leadership is the thoroughness of the succession planning and the quality of the successors. 
  • A striving for excellence: quality matters to a leader. Getting it right matters. Getting it wrong at times is understood as unavoidable and is turned into a terrain for continued learning. We all make mistakes. Mandela made many through a long life. The question “what did I learn from this?” is the key to unlocking opportunity for personal growth and space for honing excellence. 


Sello Hatang

Sello Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Mandela in 1999 as his post-presidential office. In 2007 he gave the Foundation a mandate to promote social justice through dialogue and memory work. Its mission is to contribute to the making of a just society by mobilizing the legacy of Mandela, providing public access to information on his life and times, and convening dialogue on critical social issues. The Foundation strives to weave leadership development into all aspects of its work.

Verne Harris

Verne Harris is Head of Leadership Development of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Mandela in 1999 as his post-presidential office. In 2007 he gave the Foundation a mandate to promote social justice through dialogue and memory work. Its mission is to contribute to the making of a just society by mobilizing the legacy of Mandela, providing public access to information on his life and times, and convening dialogue on critical social issues, and leadership development into all aspects of its work.


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