What Nelson Mandela Taught Me About Leadership

Whether you want to lead your organization or inspire change in others, Nelson Mandela’s leadership techniques can help:

As much as Mandela loved the limelight, he always knew he had to share it. He understood that some part—quite a large part—of leadership is symbolic and that he was a splendid symbol. But he knew that he could not always be in front, and that his own great goal could die unless he empowered others to lead. In the language of basketball, he wanted the ball, but he understood that he had to pass to others and let them shoot. Mandela genuinely believed in the virtues of the team, and he knew that to get the best out of his own people, he had to make sure that they partook of the glory and, even more important, that they felt they were influencing his decisions.

One morning, we had been walking for about an hour and a half in the hills behind his house in the Transkei, and the early mist had cleared. It was an area strewn with rocks and boulders, with dry, short grass and few trees. Mandela stopped, lifted his head, and lookedaround. He said this area used to be a mealie field—mealie being the African term for corn.

“It was lovely. We were supposed to be watching the cattle, but we would sometimes steal some mealies and roast them. We would look for large anthills that had been abandoned. All that was left inside were some dried pieces of grass and a few termites. We would take the corn and put it in the old ant hole and light a fire with the dried grass at the bottom. Then we would place the cob in the hole and the corn would roast while the termites provided a kind of oil that made the corn very tasty.” It was as though he were transported back to his boyhood and was tasting the charred corn as he was talking.

He turned to me and said, “You have never herded cattle, have you, Richard?” I said I had not. He nodded. As a young boy—as early as eight or nine years old—Mandela had spent long afternoons herding cattle. His mother owned some cattle of her own, but there was a collective herd belonging to the village that he and other boys would look after. He then explained to me the rudiments of herding cattle.

“You know, when you want to get the cattle to move in a certain direction, you stand at the back with a stick, and then you get a few of the cleverer cattle to go to the front and move in the direction that you want them to go. The rest of the cattle follow the few more-energetic cattle in the front, but you are really guiding them from the back.”

He paused. “That is how a leader should do his work.”

The story is a parable, but the idea is that leadership at its most fundamental is about moving people in a certain direction—usually through changing the direction of their thinking and their actions. And the way to do that is not necessarily by charging out front and saying, “Follow me,” but by empowering or pushing others to move forward ahead of you. It is through empowering others that we impart our own leadership or ideas. It is valuable in every arena of life. We see it in the workplace when a manager encourages her employees to help formulate new strategies. We see it at home when parents have a family meeting to guide their children toward sensible rules and behavior, rather than simply laying down the law.

One of Mandela’s longtime colleagues once said to me that because Mandela was so strong and charismatic, he never got credit for just how clever he was. People often remarked on his presence, not his intelligence. But while Mandela would not underestimate his own bandwidth, he knew he was not a quick study. He had to work at it.

He always put in the hours because he wanted to truly understand things and examine issues from all sides. He was never facile enough that he could feign knowledge that he did not actually possess. As a result, he often aligned himself with those he thought were brighter and quicker than he. He wanted to learn from those he thought had true expertise, and he was never shy about asking them to explain things for him. And by asking for their help or counsel, he would not only learn from them but also empower them and make them allies. Mandela understood that there is nothing that ingratiates you with someone else as much as asking for his help—that when you defer to others, you increase their allegiance to you.


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