What Nelson Mandela taught us about leadership

A leader of leaders.
A leader of leaders.
Image: AP Photo/Doug Mills
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Nelson Mandela will be remembered not only for his unrelenting pursuit of racial equality but also his fearless leadership. His guidance led a divided country into an era of racial peace and economic prosperity. The Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in a public statement, acknowledged Mandela’s exceptionalism and his universal appeal:

But the spirit of greatness that he personified resides in all of us. Human beings are made for greatness. Nelson Mandela embodied and reflected our collective greatness. He embodied our hopes and our dreams. He symbolised our enormous potential, potential that has not always been fulfilled.

Mandela, who spoke prolifically, left behind a collection of inspirational quotes on which every leader should reflect. Some of the best:

“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” —Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

“Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” —From a letter to Winnie Mandela, 1975

“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.” —International AIDS conference, 2000

“Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organisation and the struggle we serve.” —Presidential adress to the ANC Transvaal Congress, 1953

World leaders took to Twitter after the news to voice their own appreciation for Mandela and his leadership. Presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs reflected on Mandela’s effect on their own lives and leadership:

President Obama remembers Nelson Mandela: “A man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 5, 2013

A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time. I’ve asked for the flag at No10 to be flown at half mast.

— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) December 5, 2013

I will never forget my friend Madiba. pic.twitter.com/UX21ZZG7cg

— Bill Clinton (@billclinton) December 5, 2013

Nelson Madiba Mandela was the hero for all freedom loving people. He will always be remembered for what he gave the world – human dignity.

— Amama Mbabazi (@AmamaMbabazi) December 5, 2013

The world has lost one of its greatest citizens. A voice of courage, a source of inspiration and a beloved leader to us all. #Mandela

— Jakaya Kikwete (@jmkikwete) December 5, 2013

The world has lost Nelson Mandela, the greatest leader of our time. A guide for human courage. We mourn with the people of South Africa.

— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) December 5, 2013

The world has lost a great man. As we grieve for Nelson Mandela we should also celebrate his tremendous victory over prejudice and hate. JG

— Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard) December 5, 2013

Every time Melinda and I met Nelson Mandela, we left more inspired than ever. His grace and courage changed the world. This is a sad day.

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) December 5, 2013

Thanks for your inspiration, friendship & the joy you brought into our lives http://t.co/UxWxoMjbBv #RIPNelsonMandela

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) December 5, 2013

Left S.Africa today&heard of Mandela’s passing in a transit lounge. Madiba is in transit to a better place,leaving the world a better place

— anand mahindra (@anandmahindra) December 5, 2013

In awe of all that Nelson Mandela did to push forward humanity. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” #Madiba

— Eric Schmidt (@ericschmidt) December 5, 2013