10 Leadership Nuggets from Nelson Mandela
“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
For many of us, Nelson Mandela’s life and words are weaved through the psyche of our lives. I remember, as if it were yesterday, in my first week as an undergraduate at college, a woman sat across from me in a class said her ambition was to become an international lawyer and to work to free Nelson Mandela from prison. Her words resonated with everyone there, and I was so impressed by her passion, we became lifelong friends.
Little did we know at the time Nelson Mandela would be released from prison shortly after, and certainly we did not dream at that time that he would become president of South Africa and that he would rise to be a global elder statesman.
Living through this period of transition as he moved from prisoner to elder statesman has felt almost surreal. It gives hope for change to all who have witnessed it. For many, it has contributed significantly to shaping our values, expectations and determination to carry on in the face of seemingly intractable problems.
As Nelson Mandela turns 95, and in this troubling time of his illness, I took some time to re-read many of his writings and interviews. His legacy is an inspiration and his words speak to leadership, courage, fortitude, resilience, humility and humor.
Here are my top 10:
1. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
2. “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
3. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
4. “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (quoting Marianne Williamson)
5. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
6. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
7. “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
8. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
9. “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 toward 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 lays defeat and death.”
10.”I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
As usual, I’ve found that 10 was not enough. Here are 9 more:
11. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
12. “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
13. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
14. “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
15. “When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.”
16. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
17. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
18. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
19. “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
One last thought from Nelson Mandela on his own legacy:
“That was one of the things that worried me — to be raised to the position of a semi-god — because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed.”
Lucy P. Marcus, Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images