8 Lessons from Mandela

By Ellen Tordesillas

In the cover story of Time magazine’s July 21 issue, Nelson Mandela shared the lessons that he gained in his 90 years of extraordinary life.

An article by Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, who had collaborated with Mandela on the latter’s book, “Long Walk to Freedom,” listed the great man’s eight lessons of leadership.

What struck me was a paragraph in the sixth lesson about “the historical correlation between leadership and physicality.”

That probably explains Gloria Arroyo’s perverse brand of leadership.

Stengel shares Mandela’s rules in life “calibrated to cause the best kind of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the world a better place.”

Number One: Courage is not the absence of fear – it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.

Number Two: Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind.

Number Three: Lead from the back and let the others believe they are in front.

Number Four: Know your enemy and learn about his favorite sport.

Number Five: Keep your friends close and your rivals even closer.

Number Six: Appearances matter; remember to smile.

Number Seven: Nothing is black and white.

Number Eight: Quitting is leading too.

On lesson number one, Stengel related the time the engine of a small propeller plane Mandela was riding failed. His co-passengers began to panic but Mandela, who was then campaigning for South African presidency remained calm. When they touched down, he confessed that he was terrified.

Stengel said that Mandela told him that he experienced fear during his underground days. It would have been irrational not to be, Mandela said. But as a leader, Mandela believes that he has to put up a front to inspire others.

On lesson number two, Stengel said Mandela’s party, the African National Congress had been against negotiating with the government. When Mandela launched a campaign to persuade his party mates to negotiate with the government, many thought he was selling out. Stengel said Mandela went to each of his comrades in prison and explained what he was doing. Slowly and deliberately, he brought them along. “You take your support base along with you,” said an ANC official.

Stengel said for Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principle. Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction.

On lesson number six, Stengel said “size and strength have more to do with DNA than with leadership manuals,” but Mandela understood how his appearance could advance his cause. As a leader of the ANC’s underground military wing, he insisted that he be photographed in the proper fatigues and with a beard, and throughout his career he has been concerned about dressing appropriately for his position.

On lesson number seven, Stengel said he would ask Mandela questions like, when you decided to suspend the armed struggle, was it because you realized you did not have the strength to overthrow the government or because you knew you could win over international opinion by choosing nonviolence?

Mandela replied, “Why not both?”

Stengel said Mandela’s message was clear: Life is not either/or.

“Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears.”

On lesson number eight, Stengel said, “In the history of Africa, there have been only a handful of democratically elected leaders who willingly stood down from office. Mandela was determined to set a precedent for all who followed him – not only in South Africa but across the rest of the continent….He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.”

Someone should send the Time Magazine article to Arroyo and highlight that paragraph.


1 Comment

  1. Peter Quinn said,

    August 1, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn

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