Given the name Rolihlahla at birth, Nelson Mandela was born in a small village called Mvezo, South Africa. His  memoir, Long Walk to Freedom is  a must read.

Portions of this book was written from prison. His bravery, countless sacrifices and commitment to end apartheid in South Africa has resulted in him being regarded as one of the greatest political leaders of all times.

This book contains numerous leadership lessons which we all can use to improve our daily lives. This blog posts summarises the leadership lessons that intrigued me the most from this book with supporting quotations.

There are also several other articles on other influential leaders on this blog such as Kobe Bryant, Phil Knight, Lee Iacocca, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali and Mahatma Gandhi.  In addition, I have written an article that summarises greatest life lessons from all these success leaders. Feel free to click on the previous links to explore these other articles.

Let’s take a look at each of these.

He Knew His Purpose

Mandela was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that politics was his life’s work. This conviction resulted in the end of his first marriage to Evelyn who thought this was a passing phase.

Evelyn believed that he would later return to his village and serve in the role of counselor that his adopted father groomed him for.  

At his wedding to Winnie, her father expressed his sentiments concerning Mandela’s commitment to politics and the country. Winnie’s father at their wedding reception gave the following speech which was narrated by Mandela.

“At the wedding he said he was not optimistic about the future, and that such a marriage, in such difficult times, would be unremittingly tested. He told Winnie she was marrying a man who was already married to the struggle. He bade his daughter good luck, and ended his speech by saying, ‘If your man is a wizard, you must become a witch” (p 252)!

Lead From Behind

Mandela learnt leadership from observing his adopted father who was a Chief of a village who he called the regent.

His birth father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa died when he was nine years old and was an advisor.  Mandela recalled the regent comparing a leader to a shepherd.

“A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind” (p. 25-26).


Mandela placed particular emphasis on ensuring that he was on time to meetings and events.  He recalled an instance in his book after his release from prison where he had a meeting with then British Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher in London. He refused to return to his hotel room to get a raincoat despite the cold weather as it would have caused him to be late. Mandela stated:

“I am a stickler about punctuality, not only because I think it is a sign of respect to the person you are meeting but in order to combat the western stereotype of Africans as being notoriously tardy”(p. 700).

Acquired New Skills

When given the task to starting an army once the African National Congress admitted that non-violence protest was not producing the desired result from the Government, Mandela knew he needed to learn the art of soldiering.

He began by reading books and talking to experts to acquire the skills necessary to undertake this assignment. Mandela stated:

“What I wanted to find out were the fundamental principles for starting a revolution. I discovered that there was a great deal of writing on this very subject, and I made my way through the available literature on armed warfare and in particular guerrilla warfare” (p.325).

Sometimes a radical approach is the only option

Despite there being a series of demonstrations and other non-violent forms of protests little resolution was achieved between the State and the African National Congress. Mandela believed that violence was necessary and used the African expression:-

“Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla.” (“The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”) (p.321).

Purpose can lead to extreme sacrifices

Mandela’s sacrifices for equality and to abolish apartheid in South Africa cannot be underscored. His loyalty for this cause led to him missing his mother’s and son’s funerals. He summarised his deep feelings about his sacrifices in chapter 42 and stated:

“I have chosen this course which is more difficult and which entails more risk and hardship than sitting in gaol. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and sisters, to live as an outlaw in my own land. I have had to close my business, to abandon my profession and live in poverty, as many of my people are doing…. I shall fight the Government side by side with you, inch by inch, and mile by mile, until victory is won” (p. 327).

Placed a High Value on Trust

Mandela was captured on August 5th, 1962 after being an outlaw.  The following day he was remanded to Johannesburg.

The police were relaxed with the security measures while transporting him to Johannesburg. Instead of using the opportunity to escape, Mandela refused to take advantage. He highlighted:

“We even stopped at Volksrust, a town along the way, and they allowed me to take a brief walk to stretch my legs. I did not contemplate escape when people were kind to me; I did not want to take advantage of the trust they placed in me” (p. 374).

Trusted his heart

Mandela ran away from his home to Johannesburg. His adopted father chose a wife for him and his brother Justice.

Unfortunately, Mandela disagreed with his father’s selection. Instead of confirming to his father’s demands, Mandela trusted his instincts and ran away to Johannesburg which turned out to be a pivotal decision in his life story. His brother Justice accompanied him.

“I felt as though he had left me no choice. I could not go through with this marriage, which I considered unfair and ill-advised. At the same time, I believed that I could no longer remain under the regent’s guidance if I rejected his plan for me. Justice agreed, and the two of us decided that the only choice remaining was to run away, and the only place to run to was Johannesburg” (p. 65).

At times, the best path is the middle path

When Mandela was 23 years old, he got a job at a white law firm and was trying to get on his feet.

At the firm, one of the secretaries indicated that there were two new cups which was assigned to him and his colleague, Gaur Radebe for tea.

Gaur became Mandela’s political mentor. Mandela communicated this to his colleague who did the opposite at tea time and drank from the older cups. Refusing to offend, neither parties, Mandela said he was not thirsty.

“For a moment I was in a quandary. I neither wanted to offend the secretaries nor alienate my new colleague, so I settled on what seemed to me the most prudent course of action: I declined to have any tea at all. I said I was not thirsty, I was then just twenty- three years old, and just finding my feet as a man, as a resident of Johannesburg and as an employee of a white firm, and I saw the middle path as the best and most reasonable one” (p. 83).

Kept exercise as part of his routine

Mandela was active even while in prison.  Before his incarceration, he participated in amateur boxing. While in prison, he exercised in his cell, played tennis, jogged around the courtyard and maintained a garden.

“I have always believed that exercise is a key not only to physical health but to peace of mind. Many times in the old days I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punchbag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman” (p. 583).

Identify who is Important

Mandela was a political prisoner who was usually the spokesperson among the inmates.

Though he could have reported and requested anything that he needed from higher authorities, he chose to maintain excellent relationships with the warder in his section.

“The most important person in any prisoner’s life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of the prison, but the warder in one’s section. If you are cold and want an extra blanket, you might petition the minister of justice, but you will get no response” (p. 497).

The Importance of Education

Education was highly valued by Mandela’s father and at seven years old he began attending school. His teacher gave him the name Nelson.

Mandela believed that education was the key to removing the divide between black and whites.

This was reinforced in the summer of 1979 when he visited a hospital in Cape Town after sustained an injury while playing tennis. Mandela summarised his experience at the hospital and stated:

“The doctors and nurses had treated me in a natural way as though they have been dealing with blacks on a basis of equality all their lives. This was something new to me and an encouraging sign. It reaffirmed my long-held belief that education was the enemy of prejudice” (p. 601).

Teamwork over individual objectives

In 1959, a new African political organisation emerged called the Pan- Africanist Congress (PAC).

The majority of members who formed the PAC were former members of the ANC who disagreed with several decisions taken within the ANC on the advancement of the struggle and decided to form another African political organisation Mandela however maintained the following viewpoint:

“I have always believed that to be a freedom fighter one must suppress many of the personal feelings that make one feel like a separate individual rather than part of a mass movement. One is fighting for the liberation of millions of people, not just the glory of one individual” (p. 267).

He was Bold

Mandela exercised boldness in many instances when custom would have dictated that he should have been quiet and complaint. When Mandela arrived at Robben Island he disagreed with an order barked at by a Captain to a fellow innate concerning the length of his hair.

Mandela chose to respond which was uncharacteristic of prisoners. The Captain was in total disbelief that Mandela would respond and made advance to him. At that point, Mandela bravely stated:

“If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land and when I finish with you, you will be poor as a church mouse” (p. 407).

Demonstrated Courage

Despite the hardship and tough prison sentence, Mandela maintained a positive outlook about his circumstances and believed that freedom would be a reality.

He stated:-

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death” (p. 464).

Trusted his intuition

While in prison in 1969, a young warder who recently began working at the prison took particular interest in him.

With time, this warder revealed that he had planned his escape. Mandela found the plan unreliable and never implemented any of the steps of the plan.

After the warder was transferred from the island, Mandela discovered that he was an agent of the Bureau of State Security whose plan was to kill him on the airport as he tried to leave the country.

Maintained a conservative strategy

Mandela competed in draughts tournaments while in prison and at times he claimed the grand prize which was a candy bar.  Mandela considered the implications of every move that he made in the game. He stated:

“My style of play was slow and deliberate; my strategy conservative. I carefully considered the ramifications of every option and took a long time between moves. I resist such analogies, but it is my preferred mode of operating, but it is my preferred mode of operating not only in draughts but in politics” (p. 539).

Displayed self-control

Mandela believed in self-control even in unreasonable situations. He shared a scenario while in prison where he lost his temper with Lieutenant Prins for denying Winnie authorisation for a visit.

Upon reflecting on the event, Mandela stated:-

“Even though I had silenced Prins, he had caused me to violate my self-control and I considered that a defect at the hands of my opponent” (p. 562-563).

There is profit in isolation

A new prison cell was arranged for Mandela away from his colleagues after he completed a surgery at Volks Hospital in Cape Town.

This decision though opposed by his colleagues was embraced by Mandela. He believed that isolation created an avenue where he could engage in talks with the Government as an individual rather than a representative of the ANC.

Don’t overpromise

When the ANC was discussing whether a protest should be staged for a limited period or a permanent school boycott, Mandela strongly supported a week’s boycott.

There were several members in the ANC who believed that permanent boycott was appropriate due to the shortcomings of an Education Act. Mandela stated:

“An indefinite boycott would require massive machinery and vast resources that were which we did not possess, and our past campaigns showed no indication that we were capable of such an undertaking. It was simply impossible for us to create our own schools fast enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands of pupils, and if we did not offer our people an alternative, we were offering next to nothing” (p. 197).

Be Generous

The final trait of Mandela that stuck out in his book was the importance of being generous. Mandela stated:-

“Virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know” (p. 13).

Final Thoughts

Long Walk to Freedom, though a long book with over 700 pages was a fascinating read. There were many real life stories from a remarkable leader.

It also provides a deep understanding of the history of South Africa and the price that various individuals paid for the freedom that so many enjoy today.

If you enjoyed this article. I will be grateful if you can share it and leave a comment. For access to our free resource library with career templates, guides and checklists, click HERE to fill in the form. Thank you in advance for your support as I grow this blog.

21 Leadership Lessons From The Life of Nelson Mandela

2 comments on “21 Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela”

    • Thanks so much. Delighted that you found it valuable.

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