Mandela 8 lessons of leadership

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Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership

By Richard Stengel

Nelson Mandela has always felt most at ease around children, and in
some ways his greatest deprivation was that he spent 27 years without
hearing a baby cry or holding a child’s hand. Last month, when I
visited Mandela in Johannesburg — a frailer, foggier Mandela than the
one I used to know — his first instinct was to spread his arms to my
two boys. Within seconds they were hugging the friendly old man who
asked them what sports they liked to play and what they’d had for
breakfast. While we talked, he held my son Gabriel, whose complicated
middle name is Rolihlahla, Nelson Mandela’s real first name. He told
Gabriel the story of that name, how in Xhosa it translates as “pulling
down the branch of a tree” but that its real meaning is

As he celebrates his 90th birthday next week, Nelson Mandela has made
enough trouble for several lifetimes. He liberated a country from a
system of violent prejudice and helped unite white and black,
oppressor and oppressed, in a way that had never been done before. In
the 1990s I worked with Mandela for almost two years on his
autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. After all that time spent in his
company, I felt a terrible sense of withdrawal when the book was done;
it was like the sun going out of one’s life. We have seen each other
occasionally over the years, but I wanted to make what might be a
final visit and have my sons meet him one more time.

I also wanted to talk to him about leadership. Mandela is the closest
thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would be the first to
admit that he is something far more pedestrian: a politician. He
overthrew apartheid and created a nonracial democratic South Africa by
knowing precisely when and how to transition between his roles as
warrior, martyr, diplomat and statesman. Uncomfortable with abstract
philosophical concepts, he would often say to me that an issue “was
not a question of principle; it was a question of tactics.” He is a
master tactician.

Mandela is no longer comfortable with inquiries or favors. He’s
fearful that he may not be able to summon what people expect when they
visit a living deity, and vain enough to care that they not think him
diminished. But the world has never needed Mandela’s gifts — as a
tactician, as an activist and, yes, as a politician — more, as he
showed again in London on June 25, when he rose to condemn the
savagery of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. As we enter the main stretch of
a historic presidential campaign in America, there is much that he can
teach the two candidates. I’ve always thought of what you are about to
read as Madiba’s Rules (Madiba, his clan name, is what everyone close
to him calls him), and they are cobbled together from our
conversations old and new and from observing him up close and from
afar. They are mostly practical. Many of them stem directly from his
personal experience. All of them are calibrated to cause the best kind
of trouble: the trouble that forces us to ask how we can make the
world a better place.

No. 1
Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it
In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a
tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and
give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the
airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the
plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on
the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking
at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on
his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency
landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela
and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to
the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the
Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben
Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would
have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that
I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you
cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the
act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela
perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners
who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard,
upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew
that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to
triumph over his own fear.

No. 2
Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind
Mandela is cagey. in 1985 he was operated on for an enlarged prostate.
When he was returned to prison, he was separated from his colleagues
and friends for the first time in 21 years. They protested. But as his
longtime friend Ahmed Kathrada recalls, he said to them, “Wait a
minute, chaps. Some good may come of this.”

The good that came of it was that Mandela on his own launched
negotiations with the apartheid government. This was anathema to the
African National Congress (ANC). After decades of saying “prisoners
cannot negotiate” and after advocating an armed struggle that would
bring the government to its knees, he decided that the time was right
to begin to talk to his oppressors.

When he initiated his negotiations with the government in 1985, there
were many who thought he had lost it. “We thought he was selling out,”
says Cyril Ramaphosa, then the powerful and fiery leader of the
National Union of Mineworkers. “I went to see him to tell him, What
are you doing? It was an unbelievable initiative. He took a massive

Mandela launched a campaign to persuade the ANC that his was the
correct course. His reputation was on the line. He went to each of his
comrades in prison, Kathrada remembers, and explained what he was
doing. Slowly and deliberately, he brought them along. “You take your
support base along with you,” says Ramaphosa, who was
secretary-general of the ANC and is now a business mogul. “Once you
arrive at the beachhead, then you allow the people to move on. He’s
not a bubble-gum leader — chew it now and throw it away.”

For Mandela, refusing to negotiate was about tactics, not principles.
Throughout his life, he has always made that distinction. His
unwavering principle — the overthrow of apartheid and the achievement
of one man, one vote — was immutable, but almost anything that helped
him get to that goal he regarded as a tactic. He is the most pragmatic
of idealists.

“He’s a historical man,” says Ramaphosa. “He was thinking way ahead of
us. He has posterity in mind: How will they view what we’ve done?”
Prison gave him the ability to take the long view. It had to; there
was no other view possible. He was thinking in terms of not days and
weeks but decades. He knew history was on his side, that the result
was inevitable; it was just a question of how soon and how it would be
achieved. “Things will be better in the long run,” he sometimes said.
He always played for the long run.

No. 3
Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front

Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons
herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from
behind.” He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the

As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal
king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the
men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king
begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people
what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too
early,” he used to say.

During the time I worked with Mandela, he often called meetings of his
kitchen cabinet at his home in Houghton, a lovely old suburb of
Johannesburg. He would gather half a dozen men, Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki
(who is now the South African President) and others around the
dining-room table or sometimes in a circle in his driveway. Some of
his colleagues would shout at him — to move faster, to be more radical
— and Mandela would simply listen. When he finally did speak at those
meetings, he slowly and methodically summarized everyone’s points of
view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision
in the direction he wanted without imposing it. The trick of
leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. “It is wise,” he said,
“to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own

No. 4
Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport
As far back as the 1960s, mandela began studying Afrikaans, the
language of the white South Africans who created apartheid. His
comrades in the ANC teased him about it, but he wanted to understand
the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting
them or negotiating with them, and either way, his destiny was tied to

This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language,
he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate
tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating himself with
his enemy. Everyone from ordinary jailers to P.W. Botha was impressed
by Mandela’s willingness to speak Afrikaans and his knowledge of
Afrikaner history. He even brushed up on his knowledge of rugby, the
Afrikaners’ beloved sport, so he would be able to compare notes on
teams and players.

Mandela understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something
fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans
as deeply as blacks did. He knew, too, that Afrikaners had been the
victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white
English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a
cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did.

Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their
legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and
it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to
help them. These were “the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid
regime’s characters,” says Allister Sparks, the great South African
historian, and he “realized that even the worst and crudest could be
negotiated with.”

No. 5
Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer
Many of the guests mandela invited to the house he built in Qunu were
people whom, he intimated to me, 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

On Robben Island, Mandela would always include in his brain trust men
he neither liked nor relied on. One person he became close to was
Chris Hani, the fiery chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing. There
were some who thought Hani was conspiring against Mandela, but Mandela
cozied up to him. “It wasn’t just Hani,” says Ramaphosa. “It was also
the big industrialists, the mining families, the opposition. He would
pick up the phone and call them on their birthdays. He would go to
family funerals. He saw it as an opportunity.” When Mandela emerged
from prison, he famously included his jailers among his friends and
put leaders who had kept him in prison in his first Cabinet. Yet I
well knew that he despised some of these men.

There were times he washed his hands of people — and times when, like
so many people of great charm, he allowed himself to be charmed.
Mandela initially developed a quick rapport with South African
President F.W. de Klerk, which is why he later felt so betrayed when
De Klerk attacked him in public.

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 cherished loyalty, but he was never obsessed by it.
After all, he used to say, “people act in their own interest.” It was
simply a fact of human nature, not a flaw or a defect. The flip side
of being an optimist — and he is one — is trusting people too much.
But Mandela recognized that the way to deal with those he didn’t trust
was to neutralize them with charm.

No. 6
Appearances matter — and remember to smile
When Mandela was a poor law student in Johannesburg wearing his one
threadbare suit, he was taken to see Walter Sisulu. Sisulu was a real
estate agent and a young leader of the ANC. Mandela saw a
sophisticated and successful black man whom he could emulate. Sisulu
saw the future.

Sisulu once told me that his great quest in the 1950s was to turn the
ANC into a mass movement; and then one day, he recalled with a smile,
“a mass leader walked into my office.” Mandela was tall and handsome,
an amateur boxer who carried himself with the regal air of a chief’s
son. And he had a smile that was like the sun coming out on a cloudy

We sometimes forget the historical correlation between leadership and
physicality. George Washington was the tallest and probably the
strongest man in every room he entered. Size and strength have more to
do with DNA than with leadership manuals, but Mandela understood how
his appearance could advance his cause. As 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. George
Bizos, his lawyer, remembers that he first met Mandela at an Indian
tailor’s shop in the 1950s and that Mandela was the first black South
African he had ever seen being fitted for a suit. Now Mandela’s
uniform is a series of exuberant-print shirts that declare him the
joyous grandfather of modern Africa.

When Mandela was running for the presidency in 1994, he knew that
symbols mattered as much as substance. He was never a great public
speaker, and people often tuned out what he was saying after the first
few minutes. But it was the iconography that people understood. When
he was on a platform, he would always do the toyi-toyi, the township
dance that was an emblem of the struggle. But more important was that
dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile. For white South Africans, the
smile symbolized Mandela’s lack of bitterness and suggested that he
was sympathetic to them. To black voters, it said, I am the happy
warrior, and we will triumph. The ubiquitous ANC election poster was
simply his smiling face. “The smile,” says Ramaphosa, “was the

After he emerged from prison, people would say, over and over, It is
amazing that he is not bitter. There are a thousand things Nelson
Mandela was bitter about, but he knew that more than anything else, he
had to project the exact opposite emotion. He always said, “Forget the
past” — but I knew he never did.

No. 7
Nothing is black or white

When we began our series of interviews, I would often ask Mandela
questions like this one: 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? He would then give me a
curious glance and say, “Why not both?”

I did start asking smarter questions, but the message was clear: Life
is never 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.

Mandela is comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, he was a
pragmatist who saw the world as infinitely nuanced. Much of this, I
believe, came from living as a black man under an apartheid system
that offered a daily regimen of excruciating and debilitating moral
choices: Do I defer to the white boss to get the job I want and avoid
a punishment? Do I carry my pass?

As a statesman, Mandela was uncommonly loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and
Fidel Castro. They had helped the ANC when the U.S. still branded
Mandela as a terrorist. When I asked him about Gaddafi and Castro, he
suggested that Americans tend to see things in black and white, and he
would upbraid me for my lack of nuance. Every problem has many causes.
While he was indisputably and clearly against apartheid, the causes of
apartheid were complex. They were historical, sociological and
psychological. Mandela’s calculus was always, What is the end that I
seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?

No. 8
Quitting is leading too

In 1993, Mandela asked me if I knew of any countries where the minimum
voting age was under 18. I did some research and presented him with a
rather undistinguished list: Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea
and Iran. He nodded and uttered his highest praise: “Very good, very
good.” Two weeks later, Mandela went on South African television and
proposed that the voting age be lowered to 14. “He tried to sell us
the idea,” recalls Ramaphosa, “but he was the only [supporter]. And he
had to face the reality that it would not win the day. He accepted it
with great humility. He doesn’t sulk. That was also a lesson in

Knowing how to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often
the most difficult kind 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. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela
probably could have pressed to be President for life — and there were
many who felt that in return for his years in prison, that was the
least South Africa could do.

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
would be the anti-Mugabe, the man who gave birth to his country and
refused to hold it hostage. “His job was to set the course,” says
Ramaphosa, “not to steer the ship.” He knows that leaders lead as much
by what they choose not to do as what they do.

Ultimately, the key to understanding Mandela is those 27 years in
prison. The man who walked onto Robben Island in 1964 was emotional,
headstrong, easily stung. The man who emerged was balanced and
disciplined. He is not and never has been introspective. I often asked
him how the man who emerged from prison differed from the willful
young man who had entered it. He hated this question. Finally, in
exasperation one day, he said, “I came out mature.” There is nothing
so rare — or so valuable — as a mature man. Happy birthday, Madiba.



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