Leadership for Good: The Mandela Legacy

Nelson Mandela by rolandtelema

Artwork by Roland Telema

By Jamie Anderson & Babita Mathur-Helm

Given the leadership change that is now underway in South Africa, it is time to reflect upon the legacy left by Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid President. At a time of so much social change, not just in South Africa but in the wider world, there is a lot of talk about the leadership traits that will be required to drive positive outcomes for humanity in the 21st Century.  But we believe that the focus on leadership at this time of uncertainty is somewhat misplaced – the real challenge will be to inspire humanity towards following a path to peace and prosperity for all.  And Nelson Mandela’s story provides insight into how building and sustaining a  follower-driven movement can be achieved.

In this post we reflect upon the legacy of Nelson Mandela. We demonstrate how Mandela was able to build and sustain a followership base as part of creating momentum towards achieving positive social transformation. He was able to evolve a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what we see as the three pillars of a followership, and each of these pillars will be discussed in turn.  We will demonstrate how Mandela’s story provides a powerful lesson for global leaders who are looking to create momentum for positive change in today’s turbulent and complex times.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by providing insights about what shaped them into who they are. They are able to communicate “Who am I” and Nelson Mandela seemed to understand this from a very early age.

After his father’s death in 1927, the young Mandela became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu nation. It was at the Thembu royal homestead that his personality and values took shape. He learnt how a chief should listen to others, and this led him to be a very patient listener and to appreciate the power of humility.

Mandela was well aware that his political uprising would lead to prosecution and confinement by the ruling government, yet he remained undeterred by the consequences of his actions. In the prime time of his life Mandela was imprisoned, and as such was stripped of those possessions that sometimes denote a leader – certain attire, actions, behaviours, and material goods, but also dignity. His sense of autonomy was lost, but rather than despair his focus moved to the internal, and directed him to rely on internal self-control and integrity.  When he saw that his outer world was becoming confined, his interior world became bigger.

Even in imprisonment, Mandela carried himself with grace, standing tall, looking people in the eye, and speaking with a firm but humble voice, all of which communicated dignity and respect not only for how he treated others but how he expected to be treated by others, even those who would oppress him. Mandela acquired the ability to deal with the prison guards, who controlled his life, and in interviews after his release some of these guards talked about how one of Mandela’s most endearing qualities was his big, broad, kind smile that put others at ease.

When he went out into the larger world after his incarceration, many world leaders spoke of the traits of grace and dignity, traits that had evolved during his twenty-seven years of imprisonment. His demeanour, behavour and language embodied the anti-apartheid movement which after all was built upon universal principles of equality and respect, rather than anger or hatred.  Mandela provided a role model, and moved his followers to defy the racist policies of the South African government in a peaceful and dignified manner.

Mandela had a natural presence that led him to engage with others at a deeper emotional level. Assuredness and attractiveness, as traits of confidence and humility in the being of a leader, defines for them who they are.  The uniqueness of Mandela’s personality and confidence, and acceptance of it, meant in his own words “I do not need to pretend to be someone I am not.”

Like Nelson Mandela, leaders of today’s social movements need to demonstrate authenticity in their actions and words. The leader must have a clear understanding about what he or she wants to be known for, to draw on their life experience to do this in an authentic way, and then ensure that these traits are communicated consistently.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Nelson Mandela understood that followers want to feel part of a community and saw his natural colleagues as the mass of ordinary South Africans.   Despite his regal nature, his identification was entirely with ordinary human beings, of all races, religions and creeds.

Mandela’s followers possessed the strong desire to end years of segregation and discrimination, and to become part of the struggle. Correspondingly, they felt empowered to adopt the necessary measures to achieve their common goals, and were willing to abide by guidance given by their leader.

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of this guidance was his  appearance at the opening ceremony and final match of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa. The image of a smiling Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok Jersey, a powerful symbol of Afrikaans heritage, was broadcast around the world. Handing the trophy to Springbok captain Pienaar after South Africa’s victory in the final against New Zealand, Mandela’s gesture was a powerful statement about the emerging collective narrative of what it meant to celebrate being a South African.

Mandela seemed to recognize that the charismatic effects of his actions were more likely to occur in contexts in which his followers felt conflicted, and through the Springbok victory gave all South Africans reason to cheer together. His actions at the World Cup inspired followers not only across all levels of society in South Africa, but across the world.

Nelson Mandela was able to motivate followers by inspiring and empowering them towards achieving a common vision through a strong sense of purpose and commitment. His ability to inspire followers denoted a high level of collective insight, and through his empathy, and powerful social skills he was able to inspire others towards the collective good.

Where are we going?

The final pillar of building and sustaining a followership base towards social change is termed the future narrative, or “Where are we going.”  As a young man Mandela had the vision to end the apartheid system and led a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government. His followers believed that his vision represented the means to end years of discrimination, and through his charisma and oratorical skills was able to inspire millions to the cause. But his vision was not just about ending apartheid – it was about imagining a future South Africa of equality, unity and prosperity.

In his inauguration as the first post apartheid President of the South African Republic he described his vision for a ‘Rainbow Nation’ which brought to the fore and united the socio-cultural diversity of South Africa, and countered previous apartheid divisions. In his own words: “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. 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.”

The inclusiveness of Mandela’s inauguration speech was important as it lead to the inception of good faith negotiations between the National Party, the ruling party at the time, and Mandela’s African National Congress Party. But perhaps more importantly, it inspired a post-apartheid vision of what South Africa might become.

As the country’s first black president, Mandela’s monumental success provided inspiration for other, leaders including former U.S. President Barack Obama. At a time of global volatility and uncertainty we need more such leaders to inspire positive change.


Nelson Mandela understood that followers demand authenticity, a sense of community and an exciting future vision. He epitomized the transformational leader whose values transcend beyond that of his or her own needs for the greater good of humanity.  In today’s world in which we witness so many divisions and conflicts across the racial, social, religious and political spectrum we need leaders who are similarly able to bring people together to celebrate what is common and shared.