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CONFLICT

The 3 Decisions That Made Mandela a Truly Great Leader

Only a handful of people in a century command the global authority that Nelson Mandela does. These three crucial judgments cemented his greatness.

Mandela at a 90th birthday celebration in Johannesburg

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Nelson Mandela's life story has long since become a legend, one that transcends borders, race, language, or culture. His leadership truly belongs to the world.

It would be absurd--let alone disrespectful to Mandela's achievements--to suggest that the issues you face as a business leader are as grave as apartheid, or that the stresses you encounter compare with his decades of imprisonment. Still, Mandela's decisions at key points in his career do hold lessons for everyone who aspires to be a great leader.  In my opinion, these three decisions especially stand out.
 
1985: Turning down Botha's offer of conditional amnesty
 
In a 1985 speech to the nation, pro-apartheid President F. W. Botha offered Mandela freedom if he renounced violence and other illegal activity. The President tried to shift the blame for imprisonment to Mandela himself: after all, he was now free to go, provided he would be law abiding. Mandela did not fall for this transparent ploy. Yes, he very much desired freedom after decades of hard labor and confinement in a small cell. But he also felt it would betray his principles, his leadership and the ANC’s long struggle. Here is how Mandela replied, in part, to President Botha’s disingenuous offer:
 
“What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned?.... What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?....  Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
 
Mandela turned down Botha and opted to stay in his cold, dark prison cell --  about 8 feet by 8 feet in size -- and was prepared to serve out the remainder of his life sentence.  This strategic decision was enormously powerful, since it greatly elevated his position as the face of the ANC’s opposition, while also drawing attention to his enormous personal sacrifice.
 
1993: Finding a way to make peace in the wake of Chris Hani's assasination
 
The second strategic decision occurred shortly after Mandela became a free man but before he was elected President in 1994. The trigger was the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a popular black leader fighting for equal rights. Hani was shot in cold blood by a right-wing white extremist  when stepping out of his car. The killer was identified by a white woman, who turned him in. The assasination ignited widespread fury and triggered huge demonstrations. Many blacks wanted revenge, and the atmosphere was ripe for looting, violence and mayhem. Recently out of prison, Mandela rose to the occasion and appealed for calm. Here is part of what he said:
 
"Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world….. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for - the freedom of all of us."
 
1994: Refusing to stand for a second term as president
 
His third strategic decision occurred after his election as president: He decided early in his first term not to stand for a second, although two were possible under the constitution. This was a remarkable gesture in a continent where leaders tend to seek maximum power (such as Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe). Mandela knew that his speech would be watched by about a billion people on television around the world, and he wanted to signal clearly that he was pledged to democracy and that he represented all the people of his country, regardless of color. The most famous lines of this landmark speech are inscribed in stone on Robben Island.  Here is part of what he said:
 
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discriminations. Never, never and never again shall this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another….
 
Mandela’s extraordinary achievement was to encourage racial harmony, forgiveness without forgetting, power sharing, and a strong focus on the future, not the past. As a master of symbolism, Mandela supported his strategy by being magnanimous towards his former enemies. For example, in 1995, he visited the widow of the very man who was the main architect of the apartheid regime and in effect put him in prison (Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd). He rejoiced when the national rugby team Springboks won the world championship even though this team had been a symbol of racism and Afrikaner power for decades. He proudly wore the team’s shirt during the championship match, waved his hands in support and signaled to the world at large that he truly supported a rainbow nation. Such leadership is as precious as it is rare.

Mandela passed away December 5th, 2013 at the age of 95. 

*Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 28th, 2013. 

IMAGE: LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images
Last updated: Dec 5, 2013

PAUL J. H. SCHOEMAKER is the founder of Decision Strategies International. A speaker, professor, and entrepreneur, Schoemaker is research director at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton, where he teaches strategic decision making. His latest book is Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure.




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