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5 leadership lessons one can learn from Nelson Mandela

You rue a bad day at work or a run-in with your boss, but think of Mandela whose leaders put him in prison for life. It was his ability to persevere that kept him going despite punishment designed to break his spirit, be it back-breaking work in a lime quarry or solitary confinement during his prison term.

The lesson: When the going gets tough, the tough must get going.

 Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela



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In an interview to Time managing editor Richard Stengel for a cover story – The Secrets of Leadership – in 2008, Mandela admitted that there were times when he was afraid. But, he said, as a leader, if you are afraid, you must never show fear. “You must put up a front,” he said.

The lesson: Be brave and courageous, or learn to put up a front.

 Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela



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Mandela believed that it was wise to “persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea”. In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, 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.”

The lesson: Learn to lead from behind and put others in front.

 Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela



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His life may not have been easy, but in picture after picture, Madiba — as his countrymen fondly called him — can be seen smiling. A project gone wrong may leave most of us in a bad mood for weeks, but Mandela walked out of jail after 27 years spent in a harsh environment smiling and waving to thousands of supporters. His smile indicated that he was at peace with himself and put others at ease.

The lesson: Spread happiness through your team with a smile.

 Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela



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The workplace often puts us in situations and amidst people/team members we don’t get along with. But it’s essential for a leader to find common ground so that you can work with them for the greater good. Mandela recognized early on that the development and progress of his country could only be achieved through collective action, and chose to work with people who had once oppressed him.

The lesson: Focus on converting the office enemy into a frenemy.


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Martin Kalungu-Banda, author of Leading like Madiba: Ten leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela, says leaders need to believe in the power of their dreams. Mandela believed that his vision of a free South Africa would one day become reality, and his movement “grew out of the collective efforts of individuals who believed in their dream of freedom—a dream that was represented by one man’s larger than life vision for his country”.

So go out there and lead like Madiba – with a “good head and a good heart”. 

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