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Remembering Mandela: A Truly Transformational Leader

By: :: Published: July 17, 2014

On the eve of his birthday, it is timely to remember Nelson Mandela, a truly transformational leader who revolutionized an entire continent, if not the world. Although the challenges of leading a company can’t begin to compare to the issues Mandela faced, his ability to lead by asserting his authority, authenticity, commitment, and messaging is something every entrepreneur and business leader can learn from. By understanding how Mandela managed to succeed against incredible odds, you too can effect lasting change in your business and beyond.

Having spent a good deal of my career examining strategic leaders and organizational change, I can point to numerous examples of transformational leadership seen throughout Mandela’s life. To commemorate his birthday, I wish to share two of my favorite anecdotes about him as they explain in part why he was so successful at giving people a reason to follow him – and achieve dreams beyond their own imagination.

  • He was generous in forgiveness and recognized the inspirational power of symbolic gestures. After his release from 27 years in prison, one of Mandela’s greatest legacies was to help his country heal from the devastating evils of apartheid. As newly elected president, he paid a courtesy visit to the widow of a former prime minister who was widely known as the “architect of apartheid.”  He visited her at her home in a white enclave that wished to remain removed from an integrated South Africa. His humility and magnanimity won over many doubters. After decades in prison, he said, “I am working now with the same people who threw me into jail, persecuted my wife, hounded my children from one school to the other… and I am one of those who are saying: Let us forget the past, and think of the present.
  • He effectively communicated a vision for his country and set firm expectations for his countrymen to see that vision realized. As President, Mandela understood the importance of engaging high profile business leaders and companies for the betterment of the country. When he summoned one white leader to travel with him to the Eastern Cape to visit a new school project, this former Afrikaner was at first less than enthusiastic. However, when their plane landed, the President had 80,000 black school children – all adorned in crisp white shirts – waiting for them, bowing in acknowledgement of the great man’s arrival. As they climbed down from the plane, Mandela planted his hand firmly on his guest’s back and said, “Now, I hope you are not going to disappoint me?” The business leader decided on the spot he could not say “no” to a man who had sacrificed so much for his country and doubled the pre-set donation his firm intended to make.

Mandela’s transformational leadership style is as precious as it is rare, and his legacy provides ample inspiration for business leaders today. He encouraged racial harmony in a country ripped apart by apartheid, practiced forgiveness toward his persecutors without forgetting the indelible mark they left on his country, and focused on the future, not the past. The key to realizing his vision was his magnanimity towards his former enemies – he even invited his former prison guards to attend his Presidential inauguration. His leadership legacy will not be forgotten and should inspire us all.

Mandela passed away on December 5th, 2013. He would have been 96 tomorrow. Read more about his impact as a strategic leader in The European Business Review.

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