Conversations in Management

Nelson Mandela


I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.


Saint and sinner—Nelson Mandela probably understands the roles better than most. In the course of his life he’s been called both; often at the same time. For millions he’s a saint who’s spent a lifetime advancing the cause of freedom, hope, dignity and love with spectacular results. To his opponents, he was the vilest of sinners that even a lengthy incarceration couldn’t cleanse. Even in his last years of public life, critics found more sinner than saint. A BBC broadcast disparaged his leadership and commented that while he was undoubtedly a great man, he falls short of the giants of the past. Mandela was nonplussed. He’s the rare man who can stay centered on his principles in the face of either wild adulation or virulent criticism.  And that’s one of the things that—opinions of the BBC not withstanding— make him a giant.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Umtata, Transkei, in 1918. His political sensibilities were sharpened early as he listened to the stories of the tribal elders. They spoke of their heritage of freedom, self-determination and the democratic rule of the chiefs and counselors. Mandela attended a mission school where he picked up a surprisingly good education as well as the name Nelson. He went on to earn a university degree and ultimately became a lawyer. Along the way he assumed a leadership role in the African National Congress. His activities increasingly brought harsh retribution from the authorities. For a long period he went underground and so effectively evaded the police that he was nicknamed the Black Pimpernel. Violent repression, however, brought a violent response. Mandela helped establish the Umkhonto we Sizwe—an armed section of the ANC—and was appointed its commander-in-chief. Not long after, he was arrested. He would spend the next 27 years in prison.

But Mandela is a giant. No matter what the circumstances, he never stopped working on behalf of others. He organized the Island University in the notorious Robben Island prison. Each prisoner was assigned a mentor and a liberal arts education was painstakingly taught despite the wretched conditions. In the end, he negotiated his own release and under his own terms. Free at last, he played a pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa and became that country’s president in 1994.

Mandela is a giant. Here’s why…

He had a vision. He never lost sight of what he believed was right. He never surrendered his principles—even when it could have meant taking decades off his sentence. He never thought of himself as a victim. And he never let himself be victimized by others. He turned to violence only when forced to by his enemies. But he never let violence become an end in itself. He never gave in to the corrosive effects of hatred. He kept his dignity intact despite the efforts of others to take it from him and he always accorded dignity to others. He knew first-hand what was wrong in the world and worked ceaselessly to make things better. In time he ushered in vast societal transformations, but these were built on a foundation of small changes made over the span of decades. He resisted flattery and ignored contempt. Like any saint, he recognized his sins but wasn’t defeated by them. And he kept on trying.         

 Principle, initiative and perseverance are the traits of giants. Make them your own.


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