Nelson Mandela has been a tribal chief’s son, a civil rights leader, a reluctant guerrilla leader and eventually South Africa’s first democratic president. Through these many stages of his life he never once lost his vision for a country free of oppression for all its people. He is revered for being able to end apartheid in South Africa with minimal bloodshed and unite a once much divided country. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders of the 21st century.
Mandela was a true transformational leader in that he had the vision and strategy to back up his charisma. Charismatic leaders may be transformational leaders as they use their charisma to build allegiance in their followers. Mandela displayed great charisma in his speeches, especially in his three-hour address during the Rivonia Trial. Transformational leaders can be defined as “agents of change” who “create, communicate and model a shared vision … and inspire followers to strive for that vision.”
From his early life as a member of royalty within the Xhosa tribe to becoming president and his subsequent philanthropic life, Mandela has always shown leadership competencies. He was self-aware enough to understand the importance of education and lifelong learning in understanding and helping to change people’s circumstances.
During his imprisonment he could no longer take a lead role in the African National Congress (ANC) however he used shared leadership to ensure the ANC continued its course to a free and fair South Africa. During this time, he was challenged by members of the ANC who did not share his wish for a peaceful end to apartheid. The Guardian stated that during this time his leadership was “moral, rather than practical”.
Mandela’s biggest challenge upon release from prison was he had to manage the distress of white South Africans who feared change as well as black South Africans who wanted revenge. Heifetz stated that “a leader must have presence and poise; regulating distress is perhaps a leader’s most difficult job”.
Nelson Mandela taught us that a clear vision, integrity and tenacity are integral to be a good leader. In 1998, Mandela gave a speech at Harvard University where he said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This was how he lived his life every day, in every way. Mandela was not afraid to take the frontline in dangerous times, but he was also prepared to lead from behind and let others take the glory for victories. Mandela’s emotional intelligence was high and his ability to forgive was a true example of great leadership. Mandela adjusted his strategy as he needed but he never wavered from his deeply held values.
If we look at world leaders over the last century there have been many which are worthy of being called ‘great leaders’ however Nelson Mandela would have to be at the top of the list. Mahatma Ghandi’s career shared many parallels with Mandela’s, most importantly their approach to peaceful change. Remembering that leadership can be used for good and evil, we can’t discount the leadership of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. However, Mandela showed us that leadership is about humanity and he put people and their needs above all else with his drive to ensure that all humans are treated equally.
If we look at the four elements of transformational leadership and relate it to Mandela’s life, we can see he was a transformational leader from the very beginning. His strategic vision, the first element of transformational leadership, of a democratic South Africa was unwavering, even if it took him down the path of violence and perhaps his own death. In his Rivonia Trial address conclusion Mandela stated “It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
To achieve the second element of transformational leadership, Mandela had to communicate his vision. While it was easier for him to communicate with his own demographic, a large portion of white South Africans saw him as an agitator and someone who was going to take away their security. Mandela’s challenge was conveying his message that “black supremacy was as depraved as white supremacy”. In his inaugural presidential speech, he used crucial plural nouns to align the nation to a common vision. Ultimately, he had to “walk the talk” in every decision, speech and interview he did.
Mandela made it acceptable to put the past behind and focus on the future. This was important as revenge and violence could easily have taken over; however, by “reaching out a reconciliatory hand to his oppressors” Mandela modelled his vision for a democratic society through his promotion of reconciliation and forgiveness, showing the third element of transformational leadership.
The fourth element of transformational leadership is building a commitment towards the vision. Even during his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela could continue his work, albeit through others, to end apartheid. After his release from prison he could espouse reconciliation and used, sometimes unusual, methods to ensure a commitment from all stakeholders. This was most apparent in his use of sport as a conduit to bring all South Africans together, regardless of race, to support their country on the world stage. There are few South Africans who don’t still beam with pride when they recall the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final and how they celebrated in the streets as a nation of people, all one and all equal.
While certain skills and attitudes can be influenced through mentoring and training, the intrinsic values which define a truly transformational leader need to be in their DNA from the start. The most important characteristic of transformational leaders is the ability to control their fear when it comes to making their vision a reality. In the words of the great Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, “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.”
In conclusion, when we think about the example of Nelson Mandela we have been given valuable insights into both the challenges and the rewards of being a transformational leader. It would be interesting to see research into what a transformational leader’s legacy is after their departure from an organisation, or as in Mandela’s case, when he left office. Years after South Africa’s first democratic election, we see a country in economic and social turmoil and the lessons Mandela tried to embed into the country’s society are now considered something to aspire to. However today, without strong leadership or role modelling Mandela’s vision will continue to be an aspiration and not a reality.