Nelson Mandela’s life story is one that transcends borders, race, language, and culture. Below, Paul J. H. Schoemaker argues that Mandela’s remarkable story holds valuable lessons for business leaders involved in managing profound change, and considers how the core of Mandela’s strategy was to encourage racial harmony, forgiveness without forgetting, power sharing, and a strong focus on the future, not the past.
Nelson Mandela’s life story has long since become a legend, one that transcends borders, race, language, or culture. His leadership truly belongs to the world. Mandela’s courage, sacrifice, wisdom and magnanimity have elevated him to such global icons as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. What is less well-known is how Mandela evolved into the kind of strategic leader who from prison helped to bring freedom and democracy to South Africa. Even though he was isolated from his fellow prisoners at the end of his 27 years of captivity, he managed to steer secret meetings with the government toward the abolishment of apartheid and was set free in 1990. A few years later, free elections were held and Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected President ever in 1994. Mandela’s remarkable story holds valuable lessons for business leaders involved in managing profound change. Six capabilities are especially important for visionary leaders facing deep uncertainty and turmoil. They are the ability to (1) anticipate, (2) challenge, (3) interpret, (4) decide, (5) align and (6) learn.1 I illustrate each below using Mandela’s own word and actions. But first some background is helpful about Mandela’s early years since these very much shaped his development, life journey and leadership approach.
Mandela, born in 1918, was the son of a top adviser to a tribal royal family, the Thembu. His father had helped to elect the tribe’s new chief and when Mandela’s father died, this talented tribal chief took the young boy into his own family. So, in his early teens, Mandela left his mother and their isolated small village to witness first hand the center of tribal power. This experience awakened his interest in education, politics and leadership. After finishing law school, Mandela helped found the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), which was outlawed by the Government. The country’s ruling white party was the National Party (NP) which came to power in 1948 and architected a strategy of strict racial segregation.2