Nelson Mandela – Teacher, Healer, Leader

“…the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself,” he writes, “…to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.  In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education.

These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.  But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.

Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities that are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.   Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes.

At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.” 

He then adds the following instruction: “Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard.  You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards.”

And one final sentence of encouragement follows:  “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” 

Excerpt from a letter to Winnie Mandela dated 1 February 1975 (Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela)

With his passing this last week, it is only fitting that this, our final column for the year, be dedicated to our beloved Nelson Mandela and the incredible leadership legacy he has left us.  In doing so I have tussled for hours over what I should or should not include here – how does one condense such a life into such a small amount of space?

So I decided to share some of lessons that I have personally learned from our nation’s father.

The first is found in the text already shared.  Perhaps Socrates sums Mandela’s hard learnt lesson up best in these words: “Know thyself – let him that would move the world first move himself.”

It is incredible to note how many social and leadership challenges arise because of an inability or unwillingness to be honest with and take a hard look at ourselves.

Although I was a young boy (9 years old) when Mandela became President of our country, at that early stage in my life I was already listening and watching carefully.  And what Mandela represented to me, even then, can be captured in these words from his inaugural address on 10 May 1994: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”   

I was totally taken by the notion and imagery of a rainbow nation.

And although many of the adults around me expressed their doubts and concerns loudly and often, Mandela planted a vision within me that I began to see take shape in various forms all around me.

And with that, the following, and our second lesson, is found in one of Madiba’s notebooks:

Leadership falls into two categories:

1.      Those who are inconsistent, whose actions cannot be predicted, who agree today on a matter and repudiate it the following day.

2.      Those who are consistent, who have a sense of honour, a vision.”

He helped me, and many of you, raise my vision and see something that didn’t exist but that could with effort and dedication.

The third I learned from a poem.  In 1895 Rudyard Kipling, the British Nobel Laureate, poet and novelist, penned the lines of the poem “If”.  The fourth stanza of the poem begins as follows: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch…”

Just recently, we have heard story after story being shared via radio, television, and print media of different people’s encounters with Mandela.  From Presidents and Monarchs to cooks and even former captors, there are few, if any, stories that are not filled with accounts of his ability to make everyone and anyone feel important and special.  He would send handwritten thank you notes, make seemingly unimportant phone calls personally, and was able to remember the smallest details of different encounters.

This was a leader that understood that a crowd is made up of individuals, and to win the masses is often done one person at a time.

The fourth and final lesson was summarized by a good friend of mine on Facebook upon hearing of Madiba’s passing:

“As weird as it is, I just learned a valuable lesson from all the posts on Facebook this morning. No one cares about your mistakes or the bad things you have done in the past. They care about what you have become and which direction you are moving and what positive impact you have on those around you.

In that way, no one should allow their past to hold them prisoner. Move onward and upward. Be “the master of your fate and the captain of your soul”.

Thanks for the lesson Ntata!”

And so an era has closed and we must now go on into the future without this incredible man walking the journey alongside us.  Does this diminish his influence in any way?  Only if we allow it to.

 I believe that if he had been able to address us one last time before he passed he would have shared the following with us:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  Yes, these are the same words he shared nearly half a century ago before being sent to Robben Island.

He remained true to them throughout his life.  When all is said and done, Madiba never tried to be anything or anyone other than who he was. What a lesson for all future leaders!

From myself and all here at Leadership Platform:  Thank you for giving us so much Tata, thank you for giving your life to liberate our people and build our country.  We love you.

This article was featured in the

The Workplace




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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