Reflecting on the Leadership Life of Nelson Mandela – contributions from Goodnews Cadogan, Paul de Beer, Christo Nel, Funeka Plaatjie-Njobeni and Kerry Sandison


The passing of Madiba has touched the core of being human and being a leader, and his legacy will linger in our midst for centuries to come. One of the ways that we can make sense of how one man’s life is affecting the world is perhaps to seek for and also live the values and principles he lived by. How else could it be possible for one man to even in death bring together people from often radically opposing views? It is as if he has awakened a universal sense of being within millions of people across the globe.
The legacy of Nelson Mandela symbolises and brings to life so much of great leadership that scholars, philosophers, politicians, but most importantly, ordinary people will continue to explore what he has meant to humanity and most specifically to each one of us at an individual level. No reflection on his leadership lessons can ever hope to be complete and so each moment of mediation is just that: a moment extracted from his lifelong presence and universal examples he has gifted us.
We reflect on three integral virtues that are amongst many, that define the great leadership Madiba stood for:

• The creative anxiety to face into the storm and turmoil of uncertainty without reacting defensively from a place of rage or collapsing into paralysis.

• The conscious exercise of generative power that enables people contribute to shaping circumstances in a sustainable and aspirational way.

• The capacity of relentless love that enables us to engage with others in ways that enhance one another even when we are in total disagreement, and to do it in ways that never undermine the self-worth and dignity of others.

Nelson Mandela offers us many insights on how to turn these three interwoven virtues into the core of leadership and being.
Since time immemorial anxiety has always been part of life; on release, it can lead to either ‘flight’ of ‘fight’, and depending on whether a leader has manageable levels within, he or she can choose the right option for the situation. In tracing Nelson Mandela’s river of leadership life, he has displayed healthy levels of creative anxiety at critical points. In one of his quotes he says: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – It is this quality in Nelson Mandela that turned him into the master of creative anxiety. He became a beacon of strength for his comrades, followers and adversaries alike, including the nation at large, the continent and the globe. In so many instances he faced into the storm of anxiety and turned potentially destructive moments into times of exceptional strength and change:

1. In his capacity as first Commander-in-Chief of MK, during his trial in 1962 he said: “Government violence can do only one thing and that is to breed counter-violence. We have warned repeatedly that the Government, by resorting continually to violence will breed in this country counter-violence among the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the Government, ultimately the dispute between the Government and my people will finish up being settled by violence and force.”

2. “While we wipe away the tears, let us today reflect on what we as a South African nation need to do so that we can all go beyond our present pain. Let us learn from the tragedies that still besiege the hopes on which to build our future.” – He acknowledged the tragedy of the Bisho massacre, calling for calm in the same breath, and challenged the nation to learn and build from the experience.

3. Earlier, after the Boipatong massacre, as well as on Chris Hani’s assassination, he provided much needed calm and made it clear to his followers that peace did not have competition, and fighting was not an option. The road to freedom and democracy, he declared, was through the ballot. Furthermore, at CODESA, when the subject of power-sharing came up amongst his comrades, he put the position forward that sharing was necessary. He made it clear that as leaders, it was their duty to sell this position to the followers, with courage.

It is Mandela’s high levels of personal consciousness, and innate ability to listen to others’ viewpoints that made it easier for him to display the capacity to use the presence of anxiety to drive immense creativity. He seemed to know just how much anxiety to allow to build-up and transcend for best leadership interventions to be born. In no manner was this ever some illusionist’s trick or attempt to manipulate. It was rooted in his own deep comprehension that to be anxious is to be human and alive, and so instead of running from or raging against these moments of anxiety he turned these into personal and collective energy.
Leaders and followers alike, to begin with, in South Africa, will have done a great job of honoring him if we can acquire higher levels of both internal and external awareness consciousness. This would make it easier for us to take out the most appropriate response to a situation, for we would have assessed the desired response against the most inclusive level of the collective that we serve. On the other hand, we would have studied the environment and the people concerned, so that we respond to the society (leadership response) needs as we sense them.

The second aspect of Mandela’s leadership that we reflected on is being more able to exercise and display Generative Power. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” How to find the balance, when the opportunity presents itself, requires courage and authenticity, which we will reflect on deeper, later on. It is the state of maturity, linked to the previous aspect of consciousness that drives the ability to exercise healthy and combined doses of power and love. We can, without contradiction, claim that Mandela had reached the highest state of leadership maturity (unitive state) and this is the embodiment of oneness of the universe, hence even in death, he manages to unite the globe in celebration of his life and mourning of a genuine loss to most. Ken Wilber captures this so well in his work, and it is also described in other forms of spiritual consciousness in Africa, Christian mysticism, and in other Eastern cultures, including Sufi tradition.

He had to let go of his egoic-state to achieve this genuine display of generative power (and liberating abundance), uniting the broad church in the ANC he belonged to, as well as adversaries across class, race and gender divides. His generative power extended its reach across the globe, to influence country, region, continent and the world at large. Let us share with you some of the unique instances that he could not have been able to access from the egoic-state:

1. He understood the power of symbolism and consciously sought opportunities where he was able to illustrate his vision through acts of powerful symbolism. To mention just a few:

a. He refused to be portrayed as the chosen and special one amongst his comrades, but always projected himself as one of a collective in the leadership group and organisation he served.

b. Ndileka, his eldest grand-daughter said of Mandela, whose health was then fading: “He’s the glue that keeps us together. I shudder to think what will happen when that glue is no longer there, but we rally round and put our differences aside. Well, I’m not so sure we put them aside, but we pitch up for him.”

2. He used his presence and influence to illustrate his commitment to justice, non-racialism and
reconciliation such as when he drew Zelda La Grange close to him as his executive assistant.

3. He did not view power as the end in itself and so did not hang onto it. Instead he only took one term as President and gave the reigns to the then Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. This was strong symbolism for African leadership challenges as well as global democracy.

a. He fully owned his rank and power and exercised it. In this he created rich and full leadership. A clear example was his pushing for a Government of National Unity, despite the clear landslide victory was to get in the first democratic elections of 1994.

b. His values and behaviour were intimately interwoven and time after time he drew on his values to guide action and exercise influence. His former adversary, the last President of apartheid South Africa, said this of him: “He was a remarkable man. His biggest legacy will be [his] emphasis on reconciliation, his remarkable lack of bitterness.”

c. The image, published in papers across the world, of the towering Mandela with his arm around the widow of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd after the two shared tea, cemented his stature as one of the world’s most respected statesmen. Betsie Verwoerd later said: “I identify myself with the wishes of my people for a volkstaat (people’s state) which I believe could be developed in this part of the country,” to Mandela in Afrikaans during the visit.Mandela responded: “I want a united South Africa where we can cease to think in terms of colour”.

4. He is credited with being the most able leader in paying absolute attention to the person he is talking to, listening with all his senses, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. In return, he would give the most measured or appropriate response, whether it is gentle or fierce, on the rare occasion.

5. Most South Africans, during the ten days of mourning since his passing, have been singing, and some will do for as long as they live: “Nelson Mandela – akekho ofana nawe – ha hona a tshwanang le wena – there is no one like you”.

6. There are a few, across the world, whose trials have made them symbols of freedom, including the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, the Dalai Lama and, more recently, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl turned women’s rights activist.

The third aspect of Madiba’s leadership legacy is authenticity and servant leadership. Words like genuine, real, not copied, trustworthy, come to mind, when describing Mandela as a leader. Even for his adversaries, these words are apt, in describing how they had experienced him, as a leader. The popular song that proclaims that ‘there is no one like him’ is borne of this experience of him, by his followers. Combined with servant-leadership it becomes such a potent combination of a leader’s being, that it explains the reverence, the honour, the respect, including support from unlikely quarters. Margaret Thatcher had personally donated £20,000 to his foundation. The Iron Lady, who was famously frugal, kept a tight grip on her purse, but she gave, willingly, to Madiba.
Servant-Leadership is about the integration of opposites, and as Fons Trompenaars puts it, it is not just two words, with servant qualifying leadership as an adjective. Two words linked by a hyphen, signifying equality between the two. It could begin, like in the case of Madiba, a leader with a desire to serve others, or just a leading servant. Furthermore, it would be apt to note that servant-leadership and love are intertwined, because the motivation to serve one’s people as a leader comes from relentless love for them, whether they are White or Black, rich or poor, man or woman.

1. He clearly was not pursuing something for reasons of fame or self-enrichment. He was driven by his inner quest for justice and creating a society of non-racial democracy. This is clear in the excerpt from his statement during the Rivonia Trial:
“Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision. In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. This is what we felt at the time, and this is what we said in our Manifesto” (Exhibit AD)

2. His deeds and words were clearly rooted in consistent values. It provided a sense of certainty for those around him and built resilience, as demonstrated above.

3. We wish to raise the following points to highlight his capability of illustrating relentless love in the following ways:

a. Exceptional ability to forgive
b. Willingness to engage with people that he fundamentally disagreed with on a philosophical and political level
c. Utter dedication to inclusivity of widely diverging and often conflicting ways of thinking
d. Demonstrating true understanding of and empathy for people with conflicting interests, fears and hopes

In conclusion, above all else he was not a saint but the embodiment of the possibilities of being human – of inviting each one of us to aspire to also live a life of personal greatness. It is for that reason that we decided to pen our reflections, to invite you also, as leaders in politics, public sector, private sector, non-profit sector, and the leaders of co-operatives, as well as ordinary citizens, to explore to lead a life of greatness.

Just like apartheid, poverty is not a natural human condition, neither is fraud and corruption. Crime, violence in society in general, and that against women and children, should be ills of the past. All of these societal challenges will not disappear of their own accord. You can make the choice to act against these, wherever you are, with whatever legal means at your disposal, as a personal commitment. Economic freedom is another silent killer of unity in South Africa; we put this at the door of business leadership and the owners of capital. Through responsible leadership and responsible investment, we can wipe out those organisations and leaders who want to continue with the business practices of the pre 1994 era.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s Life Story – Video

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