The legacy of Nelson Mandela is one of the most valuable learnings. Besides being remarkable, his leadership changed South Africans’ lives in a profound way. The ways in which he led and the beliefs he held about life are still relevant today and many of these learnings could be applied to businesses:

  • Serving the people and always putting the welfare and interests of those he presented ahead of his own needs.
  • Relating and responding to various constituencies within his organisation, on the African continent and abroad.
  • Seeing both sides of an issue, which also helped him to negotiate more effectively.
  • Motivating and inspiring others, and persuading people to support and truly believe in the purpose.
  • Treating all – no matter background, attributes or designation – with the utmost honour and respect.

Leadership lessons from Madiba could prove immensely helpful and possibly yield impressive business benefits – whether internally or externally – when leaders are constantly looking to improve their leadership styles and interactions with their team members.

First and foremost, Nelson Mandela considered himself a servant of the people of South Africa. The time-honoured principle of leadership through service is at the forefront of leadership discourse and one of the lessons business leaders can learn from Madiba. In our quest for a global society where justice, fairness, and compassion for the most vulnerable flourish, we need servant-leaders that genuinely care for others. Political and social communities both clamour for leaders who sincerely serve their constituents – this is also evident in the corporate world. The high staff turnover rate in many places of employment implies that people are searching for authentic leaders, much like Madiba. The fact that his version of servant leadership transcended barriers of culture, gender, colour, religion, and age is what made his leadership style and practice so unique.

The themes, which are based on agile principles, have never been more relevant or forward-thinking than they are right now. Mandela had to unite people from different backgrounds and sectors, some of whom had sharply different perspectives, around a shared set of objectives that would pave the way forward. Mandela fought against apartheid, but he also fought for a better society where everyone’s freedom, justice, and dignity were upheld; something that business leaders continue to work towards in the workplace to this day. Diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion – or the lack thereof – remain significant factors contributing to the success or failure of a business or a leader. It is now more crucial than ever for corporations to make sure that all of these codes are ingrained into the very fabric of their organisations in order to not only lower turnover rates, but also to make sure that their companies are future-fit and that every employee and client feels seen and a part of a company that cares.

Nothing in life is just black or white and it never comes down to just either/or. This complexity and binary about life is another of his beliefs that can be applied to business. Making business decisions is difficult as there are many competing interests and the tendency for people to hunt for straightforward explanations makes it even harder. Contradiction was nothing to Mandela. He was a political pragmatist who perceived the world as being indefinitely complex. And business is too – the sooner business leaders accept and start owning this, the better.

Even though Mandela was not a flawless person, he showed remarkable leadership qualities, his ability to motivate others to greatness was the hallmark of his great leadership. The ability to bring out the best in the people one is trusted to work with and live with is not only remarkable but inspiring. Inspirational leadership permeates society and its institutions in such a way that everyone starts to recognise their own individuality and accept their place in society. Inspirational leadership forces us to delve deeply within; it enables leaders to unearth the best within themselves and their team members and make it available to others. This is the essence of effective leadership.

One of the most important lessons that Madiba shared, was that leaders must treat everyone with the highest respect and honour. Treat each person as if they are the only ones in the world at that time and as if they are the only ones that matter.

It is possible to learn a great deal about leadership from Madiba, and these lessons can potentially be adopted by leaders in business. People from different backgrounds and sectors, some of whom had sharply divergent viewpoints, was united by Madiba. He demonstrated the importance of serving sincerely, relating to others through empathy and understanding, recognising the indefinite complexity of the world, inspiring and motivating others to join the purpose, as well as treating all with honour and respect. There is no doubt that many businesses could benefit if their leaders embraced these lessons and tailored them to fit their own paths.