Leadership lessons from Madiba: His footsteps, our pathway


As we celebrate Madiba’s Birthday, I reflected on his life, his leadership lessons and why his departure has left a huge leadership void in our country, our continent and the world. I thought the best way to celebrate this amazing life was to republish thoughts I shared in 2014 after he passed away.

Newspaper headlines and the social media daily scream of corporate scandals, political corruption, growing inequality, economic crises, political upheavals, conflicts, coups, uprisings and wars. It is creating a crisis of confidence in leadership across key markets throughout Africa and the world. The weakening of institutions of accountability is adding to despondency, suspicion and cynicism about leaders. This is the background against which I decided to engage in this series of Conversations.

Why? Because leadership does matter! It matters for the resolution of conflicts, the negotiation of peace, economic stability, company performance, social equality and many other important issues. Current leaders are facing mistrust from followers, complexity in their roles, competing demands, greater scrutiny, huge temptations and negative influences.

Both followers and leaders are currently searching for direction; for role models and lodestars that can guide them into their future. In this search, Nelson Mandela stands out as a colossus whose leadership approach was shaped by decades of struggle, sacrifice, learning and reflection.

I hope to illustrate the key leadership lessons of this icon of nation builders. I hope these lessons will be useful for all leaders, in politics, corporates and civil society throughout the African continent. I hope they will provide a barometer we can use to measure ourselves as leaders, but more importantly, by which we are judged by those we lead, lest the fate of the empire-builders befall us as well.   

Madiba’s place in history is best described by Nadine Gordimer: “I kept on thinking over the millennium, as we changed from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, that out of those lists of people who ‘made’ that terrible century – one of the most violent recorded – two stood out like Mount Everest above the others. One was Mahatma Gandhi and the other was Nelson Mandela. Gandhi’s whole life was that long march to freedom, and Mandela too has been the same – and I think he has not stopped marching. He does not turn away from huge problems. Gandhi and Mandela, the two indisputably magnificent great people of the last millennium, are unique in their credible moral and humanistic stand. And we’ve still got Madiba with us.”

Sadly, Nelson Mandela is no more. When that great heart ceased to beat, when that powerful voice went silent, when that beautiful smile relaxed peacefully and that Madiba jive came to a stop, the world came to a standstill. No person’s death has ever had such a profound impact on millions of people across the world, of all races, religions, cultures and ages. The outpouring of emotions was unprecedented. The number of vigils and prayer meetings held were innumerable, the tears shed could fill rivers and the memories shared will grace history books.  But he is now no more.

This great man, who epitomises all that is great about leadership, who exhibited all the qualities we want to see in leaders, has left a standard by which all of us as leaders will be judged.

What made Madiba special? A few things immediately come to mind:

  • His ability to win people over to his cause through charm and persuasion;
  • His ability to see both sides of an issue, which enabled him to negotiate better;
  • His efforts towards and amazing gestures of reconciliation and nation building;
  • His steadfast courage as a participant in the Defiance Campaign, the underground, military action and treason trials, as well as during his imprisonment on Robben Island;
  • His principled stance on fundamental issues, matched only by his ability to change course or compromise to advance a bigger cause;
  • His ability to embody the most essential qualities and values of a leader – values that transcend time and place and that are relevant to all;
  • His ability to relate to and be responsive to different constituencies in his organisation, in South Africa, all over the African continent and around the world.
  • His demonstration of true courage and integrity; standing by his principles, even when his freedom was at stake, and always placing the welfare and interests of his constituency far above his personal needs and interests.
  • His realness, sincerity, diligence, dedication and fun-loving attitude. He was approachable and so human. Anyone and everyone could relate to him.

Although all these and many other attributes made Madiba a revered and inspirational leader, it is how he made us all feel that endeared him to one and all. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel.” It is through his words and deeds that all of us could equally relate to him, feel connected to him, trust him, admire him and ultimately love him. Those words, gestures and touching moments are etched into our memories, each in a different way, each representing something unique. All of us were moved by Madiba.

Living up to our promises to Madiba

We gave Madiba a memorable funeral, erected monuments in his honour, named streets and buildings after him, eulogised him, mourned him for days, attached his face to all our possessions, claimed him, fought over him and declared to one and all how we would follow his lead. These gestures, great as they are, may not sustain his legacy, may not give tribute to his greatness, and may not even be what he would have hoped for.

It seems to me, that over and above these noble gestures, the greatest tribute to this great man would be to love others as he loved us, to forgive others as he did, to build communities and nations as he did, to lead selflessly as he did, to fight injustice in any form as he did, to fight racism, sexism and tribalism as he did, to respect the rule of law as he did, and to create understanding among one another as he did. It seems to me that if we did that, each in our own environment, our sphere of influence, we would fulfil his dream of a non-racial, democratic, non-sexist South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa and a much more caring and equitable world.

Maybe the clearest indication of Madiba’s wishes and hopes was articulated in his last speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 1998: “As I sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as its hills … I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, and on my continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom as we were; that any should be turned into refugees as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity as we were.”

His challenge to leaders and aspirant leaders is clear, his expectations of private and public sector leaders is unequivocal, and his expectations of leaders in Africa and the world are clearly spelt out in what Kofi Anan described as “heartrendingly moving words, uttered with the utmost gravity.”       

It is up to us to become that cadre of leaders, even though living up to our promises to Madiba may prove hard in the harsh reality of the aftermath of his death. We, as lesser men and women, have to face the task of following in his giant footsteps. As we take tentative steps on the long walk to preserve his legacy, we need to gauge how far we are from the path we seek to follow. Each one of us needs to reflect on the following soul-searching questions:

  • Do you admire Madiba’s transcendence of anger and hatred? If you do, are you living your life in the same way, or do you suffer from these corrosive emotions in your personal and professional life.
  • Do you admire Madiba’s ability to foster unity and reconciliation? If you do, do you live the same way or are you a source of division and polarisation in your sphere of influence?
  • Do you admire Madiba’s undying hope? If you do, are you setting an example that will help others to live in hope or are you despondent about the future; a prophet of doom and a purveyor of cynicism?
  • Do you admire Madiba’s ability to steer a middle course? If you do, do you do the same as a leader, or do you choose sides and engender conflict and misunderstanding?
  • Do you admire Madiba’s wisdom? If you do, are you prepared to try as hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes so that you can attain it?
  • Do you admire Madiba’s people-centred leadership? If you do, are you a servant leader or are you distanced from the people you lead
  • Do you admire Madiba’s selflessness and his generosity of spirit? If you do, do you show the same willingness to avoid selfishness, corruption, and crass materialism, the flaunting of wealth and the abuse of corporate or public resources for personal gain?

Attaining these and other attributes and values may seem daunting to even the most optimistic of us. We may feel that this long walk is beyond us; that we may never measure up to the high standard set by Madiba. President Obama’s eulogy reassures us that Madiba was no saint, nor a bust made of marble. Like all of us, he was a mere mortal with victories and failures. It was through the power of actions and ideas, large and small, that he moved “a nation towards justice and in the process moved billions around the world.” Obama challenges us to go beyond the mourning and celebration to self-reflection about how we will continue his legacy.

These Conversations are aimed at all leaders; those who aspire to lead and those who are thrust into situations of leadership. It is our individual and collective duty to perpetuate Madiba’s legacy of leadership for the benefit of future generations. Doing so will build a lasting non-physical monument to rival the great pyramids of Egypt; the timeless Timbuktu and Djenné manuscripts in Mali, ancient Egyptian papyri and stelae, the kingdom of Mapungubwe, Maropeng’s Cradle of Humankind and the ruins of Akrum in Lebanon.     

Some may say what Madiba has accomplished is too great, others may claim that they are not in leadership positions, yet others may consider the sacrifices required to be too great. I hope to show through these Conversations that each one of us can take steps to lead the Madiba way in our areas of influence. Leadership is not the preserve of a few; it is not a position held or a title bestowed; it is, as Professor Jonathan Jansen rightly says, “an influence that is felt”. The greatest monument we can build for Madiba is in how we live our lives every day, based on the lessons we have learned from him, and the things we admire in him.

As we reflect on these lessons, as we evaluate how far we have to go to reach the bar he has set, as we realise the changes required in our behaviour, in our actions and our mind-set, the temptation will surely come to look elsewhere and judge other leaders, criticise them, compare them to Madiba. This is the easy route to take, but each step along it will be a step away from his pathway. His pathway demands that we take our own steps, that we set the example and, like him, stay the course, no matter how difficult it may be.

It may also be tempting to take only those parts of Madiba’s legacy that suit our current circumstances and jettison those that are more onerous. Again, that would be a terrible misstep. It would not reflect Madiba’s completeness as a leader. We have to walk the full mile, embrace all aspects of his leadership lesson. It may be enticing for us to seduce our followers by using charisma in the way Madiba did. Unfortunately, if our inner core, our value system and our convictions are unlike Madiba’s, our followers will see through the charade. Words matter, but actions, results and character matter more. We must remain true to his long walk every step of the way.

As our footsteps turn into a confident stride, we will have to be more vigilant. It is the allure of power, the trappings of office, the arrogance of incumbency, the entitlement that comes from the benefits of our positions, the negative influence of those who suddenly surround us and the insensitivity and callousness that comes with wealth and privilege that may trip us up.

Lastly, as we walk this path and make some progress, we must guard against claiming his legacy for ourselves exclusively. We should never dare to claim his name as a badge. It must be our consistent, selfless, empowering and inspiring actions, every day, toward everyone, that one day convinces our followers or subordinates that we are worthy of the Madiba legacy.

A final word of caution: We must not be Madiba; we must be our authentic selves, using Madiba’s lessons to become even better versions of ourselves, not poor imitations of the great man. In 2003, Professor Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, challenged a new generation to lead authentically. According to him, “authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.”

I hope you will join me on this leadership journey through these Conversations. I look forward to hearing your feedback; your personal stories, your challenges and your achievements.

Let us retrace Madiba’s footsteps, matching our tiny footprints to his giant ones on our quest for true and genuine leadership. In this way, we may just become the leaders that our teams, followers or supporters yearn for and richly deserve.

The world cries out for more leaders with vision, humility, principles and courage. Each one of us, leaders and aspiring leaders, have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others. May we celebrate this Mandela birthday by recommitting ourselves to lead better, listen more, care more and and make the world a better place.

Happy Birthday Madiba, you made us better because of your presence, that impact has endured in your absence.

I will forever miss you.