Mandela’s 8 Rules of Leadership

Photo Credit Mastababa (Flickr)


I found the below 8 Rules of Leadership in Time Magazine (7/9/2008), by Richard Stengel. The examples that Richard gives are summarized by me in note form below each rule.

As you read these rules, think about how you can incorporate them into you being a Leader in your own Life (not just at work). Also think about Nelson Mandela, who he has become and what he has been through. These aren’t created by just ‘some person’, but by a person who went on a nightmarish rollercoaster (emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc.) for 30 years of his life while imprisoned. These come from the depths of that man.

1. Courage is not the absence of fear – it is inspiring others to move beyond it.

There were MANY times when Mandela was terrified, but he put up a front and never let anyone see it. He could not lead others to move beyond their fear if he showed his own. For example, Mandela was once on an airplane that was 20 minutes from landing when an engine failed. Everyone was beginning to panic. The only thing that kept them calm was looking at Mandela, who was calmly sitting there reading his newspaper. When he got into his bulletproof BMW, he turned to the guy who was writing his biography at the time and said, “Man, I was terrified up there.” Through the act of appearing fearless, he inspired others to go beyond their fear.

2. Lead from the front – but don’t leave your base behind.

Sometime Mandela was far ahead of his followers in his mind and actions. It took them a while to figure out that the things he was doing really were good in the long run. He had to take the time to convince them of that, while they all thought he was insane.

3. Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.

Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood when he was herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” Then he would raise his eyebrows to make sure the listener caught the analogy.

Mandela often remembers his upbringing by the village chief. In the meetings, the chief would not speak until everyone had a chance to speak. The chief’s job was not to tell people what to do, but to form a consensus. The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. Mandela once said, “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

4. Know your enemy – and learn about his favorite sport.

Not only did Mandela learn Afrikaans, the language of his enemy, but he also learned Rugby – the Afrikaner’s beloved sport – so that he would be able to compare notes on teams and players. He truly learned their language and culture so that his tactics and negotiations would be most effective.

5. Keep your friends close – and your rivals even closer.

This rule was first authored by Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military strategist and author of ‘The Art of War’. Many of the guests Mandela invited to his house were people he did not wholly trust. He had them to dinner; he called to consult with them; he flattered them and gave them gifts. Mandela is a man of invincible charm – and he has often used that charm to even greater effect on his rivals than on his allies.

Mandela believed that embracing his rivals was a way of controlling them; they were more dangerous on their own than within his circle of influence. He would pick up the phone and call his opposition on their birthdays and attend their family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity. He cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it. Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust was to neutralize them with charm.

6. Appearances matter – and remember to smile.

Mandela’s smile was like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. When Mandela was running for President, the campaign poster was simply his smiling face. The smile was the message. Mandela gave very poor speeches apparently. People would tune him out after the first few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood.

7. Nothing is Black or White.

Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. Mandela’s mentality was always “What is the end that I seek?” and “What is the most practical way to get there?”

8. Quitting is leading too.

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task, or relationship is often the most difficult type of decision a leader has to make. In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

These are very simple rules to incorporate into your life. If you would like to take the Kaizen Way, perhaps you could practice one rule per week, fully engaging in what each rule means to you and how you can use is right now in your life. I hope that this blog post was insightful. If you would like to view the article in Time Magazine, please click here.

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