Nelson Mandela’s 8 Lessons of Leadership

July 24, 2008

My wife sent me this Time Magazine article about Nelson Mandela and leadership.

  1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.
  2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.
  3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
  4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport.
  5. Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer.
  6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile.
  7. Nothing is black or white.
  8. Quitting is leading too.

Most of these have been said before, but I liked the juxtaposition of 2 and 3. Adaptable leaders are able to smoothly transition between leading from the front and leading from the back. They know that different situations call for different styles, and they can recognize when it is time to switch from one style to the other.

Mandela’s sixth lesson of leadership is one that took me awhile to come to terms with. It’s a common prejudice of people with technical backgrounds to distrust anyone who looks like they put more thought into style than substance. But I’ve learned over the years, that appearances do matter. That people will make a judgement about your competence based on how you look. Do you look successful? Do you look like you know what you’re doing? You can have all the brains in the world, but in the end, so much of your career comes down to selling–selling yourself, selling your product, selling your ideas. And selling depends a lot on perceptions.

There’s nothing you can do about other people’s perceptions, so you have no choice but to play the game. Buy some nice, professional-looking clothes. Get a decent haircut. Heck, I’ve even been known to get a manicure before really important meetings when I want to make sure I look sharp.

Madiba Statue
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: BraNewbs

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What Nelson Mandela Had To Say About Leadership - Jordan Whitfield - The Vital Portal
June 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

petermello July 24, 2008 at 8:10 pm

I agree with your post and would like to take it one step further. No matter the duds donned, accessorize with a smile.

The power of a smile can not be overstated. It conveys warmth and confidence and makes a person approachable and more likable; all qualities beneficial to those needing to exercise leadership. In a previous job I had to do quite a bit of public speaking, often to large audiences, and before hitting the stage my wife would always remind me to carry a smile. Every week I co-host a podcast and before recording I make a conscious effort to smile even though we are only recording audio. The smile is magical and the best part is that it’s free and easy and anyone can do it. And that’s why it fits wonderfully in Mandela’s 8 simple leadership lessons.

I also recently posted on this topic as well. Happy 90th Birthday Nelson Mandela!

Thanks and Fair Winds!

Graham July 24, 2008 at 8:26 pm

Thank you for your comments, Peter. I agree completely.

Mike Sanders August 14, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Great comments on adaptability. Great leaders know when to adapt. The problem is so many leaders follow what they are comfortable with. That strategy just won’t bring success any more. Competition and technology are changing too fast for leaders to not be good at adapting!

Ngu H Morcho January 13, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I am glad at least ONE of my many sessions with you on the importance of selling in every aspect of our lives finally resonated. Beyond managing perceptions, the appropriate appearance allows your audience to focus more on the content of your discourse and less so on your scruffy and uncoordinated presentation.

Notice, though Mandela generally does not wear western style suits, and most other African presidents do, he has been more successful in connecting with his base because he focuses on “appearing” just like them. Amazingly, Khaddafi in Libya is very effective at this tactic as well and his base is most endeared to him, but do not ask anyone in the US who does not own a passport and gets all their international politics/foreign policy education by watching fox TV.

I like the postings, G. I am definitely a fan and will follow closer.

Graham January 13, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Ngu! Thanks for your comments, and all your advice over the years.

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