The Leadership Lessons of Nelson Mandela

As the world celebrates the life and legacy of former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela, we in the business community should take a moment to consider three powerful lessons we can distill from his leadership that are relevant for leaders at every level, particularly those young people who currently populate our business schools, who aspire to lead well and create lasting value in the world.

Leadership is behavioral, not positional
Though he only served as South Africa’s president for five years, Nelson Mandela is a classic case study of how one can lead without formal authority. Over the 27 years he was imprisoned, he exerted influence. Over his five-year presidency, he exerted influence. In the decade and a half following his retirement from politics, Mandela’s influence grew as a global humanitarian and philanthropist. Admittedly, his influence was enlarged by virtue of the presidency, but positions and titles don’t define great leaders, great leaders define and leverage the power of their positions to have a positive impact.

The capacity to integrate, motivate, and mobilize others to bring a common aspiration to life is what leadership is all about, not holding positions of formal authority. This simple truth gives hope to the up-and-coming millennial generation that leadership isn’t an activity relegated to the seemingly distant c-suite; good can be done at every stage of one’s career. It can serve to reignite the passion of the mid-career professional – somebody is watching, learning from, and emulating your example, regardless of who recognizes (or ignores) your contributions. At the same time, Mandela’s example also gives renewed purpose to the well-seasoned senior executive that retirement is nothing to be afraid of. There is unique purpose and meaning in every season of one’s life – embrace each season and lead where you are.

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