Paul J. H. Schoemaker is research director of Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, executive chairman of Decision Strategies International and the author of numerous books and articles. He recently visited South Africa, where he met with government and business leaders to discuss Nelson Mandela’s legacy. In the following opinion piece, Schoemaker describes three decisions that illustrate Mandela’s leadership, and he analyzes early political events that influenced Mandela’s career.

The life story of Nelson Mandela is well known, and has elevated him to the level of such widely recognized heroes as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. There is indeed much courage, sacrifice, wisdom and nobility in his life — attributes that demand our deep respect and have much to teach us.

Why Was Nelson Mandela a Good Leader?

What is less well-known is how Mandela evolved into the kind of strategic leader who, from prisons on Robben Island and elsewhere, helped to bring genuine democracy to South Africa. For example, while isolated from his fellow prisoners by force, he steered secret government meetings toward the abolishment of apartheid and free elections. Subsequent to that, he became the country’s first democratically elected black president.

Mandela’s remarkable story holds valuable lessons for other leaders involved in deep struggles, foremost among which are the importance of holding firm to a morally just vision and the ability to influence a sequence of key strategic decisions over time (decades, in his case) in order to bring about truly remarkable results.

Three decisions especially stand out in Mandela’s evolution as a strategic leader. To appreciate these fully, however, we need to understand some of the social and political contexts that shaped his career and values.

A Life Sentence

Mandela was born in 1918. His father was a top adviser to a tribal royal family (the Thembu) and helped elect the tribe’s new chief who later — after Mandela’s father died — took the young boy into his own family. This path led Mandela from an isolated small village upbringing to the center of tribal power in his teens, which in turn awakened his interest in education and politics. He studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand and early on became involved in anti-colonial politics. Mandela was a founding member of the Youth League inside the African National Congress (ANC), the main black political party of South Africa, which was later outlawed and banned by the government. The country’s ruling party, the National Party (NP), started to implement a strategy of strict racial segregation, later known as apartheid, after coming to power in 1948.

Mandela obtained prominence in the ANC through his liberal political views and opposition activities, especially the Defiance Campaign of 1952. He was at first committed to non-violence, inspired by Gandhi’s successful opposition to British colonial rule in India. But eventually, due to the government’s harsh measures against non-violent opposition, he became increasingly drawn to various forms of targeted sabotage — actions that resulted in numerous arrests. In 1961, he co-founded a militant wing in partnership with the South African Communist Party and was eventually convicted of treason. Mandela was spared the death sentence, but was condemned to life in prison. He served a total of 27 years. In 1994, he became the country’s president.

While in prison, Mandela stood out — among both prisoners and guards — as highly principled, respectful, dignified and willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Many of his fellow political prisoners were heroic as well. Most were well trained, and they taught each other about their respective fields of expertise while working in the limestone quarry. Prison life was harsh, with bad food, cold sleeping conditions in the winter and long periods of loneliness. Mandela fell ill intermittently and contracted nasty lung infections, including tuberculosis, due to his years in damp prison cells.

Despite these conditions, he was able to write an influential autobiography in secret titled, Long Walk to Freedom, which chronicles his life in detail against the backdrop of deep social injustice and harsh state oppression. This clandestine book was smuggled out in pieces and printed overseas when finished. It became a global best-seller. An international freedom campaign by the ANC, led by the exiled leader Oliver Tambo, had managed to make Mandela the poster child of opposition to apartheid as well as an eloquent spokesman for a new democratic South Africa.

The world took notice: International businesses as well as governments increasingly boycotted South Africa during the 1980s. The NP’s unyielding stance, especially President P. W. Botha’s dogmatic hardline approach and focus on law and order, made the NP a pariah on the global stage. Business leaders from Anglo America and other local companies were increasingly putting pressure on Botha and later on his successor, F. W. de Klerk, to change course. Also, young whites voiced their opposition to apartheid and racism in churches, schools, social clubs, work settings and at home with their parents. Eventually even the Dutch Reformed church, which had given apartheid proponents dubious biblical justification for the segregation of races, changed its views. Very slowly, the Afrikaner leadership started negotiations with Mandela in prison. It was a form of intermittent shuttle diplomacy, with government leaders visiting him in person, sympathetic white guards passing messages to and from the ANC, and Mandela being flown from his new prison house near Cape Town to meet in secret with Botha and later de Klerk in the capital of Pretoria.

President de Klerk’s back was very much against the wall in 1990. The economy was suffering from the boycotts; business leaders wanted change; the containment strategy of carving out Home Lands for blacks was failing, and the country was on the brink of civil war in black townships. Something had to give, and it happened in de Klerk’s seminal opening speech to Parliament in February 1990. He called for free democratic elections (one man, one vote) as well as the unconditional release of all non-violent political prisoners. In addition, he lifted the ban on the ANC and many other outlawed parties.

This was a watershed event since whites were a minority in the country and would surely lose political power through these declarations. De Klerk kept his promises and released political prisoners, although not Mandela at first, given his violent past. De Klerk was hoping for a power sharing arrangement with the ANC, but this eventually proved to be naïve on the part of this otherwise very pragmatic NP leader. De Klerk and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for achieving a largely non-violent, voluntary transfer of power by a strong minority group to a hostile majority, a rare event in human history.

The Face of the Opposition

Against this complex backdrop, three strategic decisions by Mandela — among many others — stand out from a leadership perspective. The first occurred when Mandela was offered a conditional release from prison by the government. In a 1985 speech to the nation, President Botha offered Mandela freedom if he renounced violence and other illegal activity. The President tried to shift the blame for imprisonment to Mandela himself: After all, he was free to go now, provided he would be law abiding. Mandela did not fall for this transparent ploy. Yes, he very much desired freedom after decades of hard labor and confinement in a small cell. But he also felt it would betray his principles, his leadership and the ANC’s long struggle. Here is how Mandela replied, in part, to President Botha’s disingenuous offer:

What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned?…. What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?…. Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

Mandela turned down the President and opted to stay in his cold, dark prison cell — about eight feet by eight feet in size — and was prepared to serve out the remainder of his life sentence. This key decision was strategic since it greatly elevated his position as the face of the ANC while also drawing attention to his enormous personal sacrifice. In addition, it revealed Mandela’s keen situational awareness that political change would come soon, even though he was isolated from the news media and poorly informed about developments in the country. Mandela’s intuition proved right: Half a decade later, this man of deep principle was released unconditionally and rose to become the president of the ANC and then the country.

The second strategic decision occurred shortly after Mandela became a free man, but before being elected president in 1994. The trigger was the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a well-known and popular black leader fighting for equal rights. Hani was shot in cold blood by a far right white immigrant when stepping out of his car in the street. The killer was identified by a white woman who turned him in. This targeted killing was the flame that ignited a tinder box, resulting in widespread demonstrations against the white racist government. Many blacks wanted revenge, and the atmosphere was ripe for looting, violence and mayhem. Recently out of prison, Mandela rose to the occasion and appealed for calm. Here is part of what he said:

Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world…. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for — the freedom of all of us.

His third strategic decision occurred in his 1994 speech after his election as president of South Africa, which he served for only one term although two were possible under the constitution. His early decision not to stand for a second term was a remarkable gesture in a country and continent where leaders seek maximum power (such as Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe). Mandela knew that his speech would be watched by about a billion people on television around the world, and he wanted to signal clearly that he represented all the people of his country, regardless of color. Some of his lines are famous now and are inscribed in stone on Robben Island. Here is part of what he said:

We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discriminations. Never, never and never again shall this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another…. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

Mandela recognized full well that South Africa could easily fall back into civil war due to the many crimes, injustices and deep wounds inflicted by the apartheid regime. He also knew an all-out war would at best yield a Pyrrhic victory. Furthermore, much of the expertise needed to run the country’s business, legal, social and educational institutions resided within the white minority population. Having seen what happened in nearby Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s corrupt leadership, whites feared for their future, and many left the country (a brain drain known as white flight). Mandela’s aim was to rise above past injustices, embrace Archbishop Tutu’s call for truth and reconciliation, and unify the country by focusing on a shared, democratic future.

The key to Mandela’s leadership style was to encourage racial harmony, forgiveness without forgetting, power sharing and a strong focus on the future, not the past. As a master of symbolism, Mandela supported this strategy by being magnanimous toward his former enemies. For example, in 1995, he visited the widow of the very man who was the main architect of the apartheid regime and in effect put him in prison (Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd). He rejoiced when the national rugby team Springboks won the world championship even though this team had been a symbol of racism and Afrikaner power for decades. He proudly wore the team’s shirt during the championship match, waved his hands in support and signaled to the world at large that he truly supported a rainbow nation. Such leadership is precious and rare.

What Mandela offers aspiring strategic leaders is a living example of how complex societal forces, uncompromising values and key moments of decision can be woven together over time, and across political, legal and economic domains, into a compelling vision that can transform a political party, a nation and even the world. Strategic leadership is not just about executing an initial strategy by engendering followership, but above all about adjusting that strategy when necessary to maintain broad support. Few political leaders today master this as well as Nelson Mandela, who is also affectionately known by his tribal name, Madiba.

It seems fitting that a black teenage boy who was enthralled with the machinations around the throne of his tribe’s chief eventually occupied an even larger throne, one visible to the entire world. Mandela is a man who spanned many decades, cultures and realities in his search for freedom and justice. He sacrificed deeply and nobly, and in the process became a world icon for human rights. In political terms, he was truly a transformational leader. In the end, even his foes admire as well as respect him — and justly so. He is one of the most remarkable men of the last 100 years.

Summary: Mandela as a Transformational Leader:

  • Unwavering commitment to a long-term vision of justice and hope
  • Not escalating violence and only answering in kind when no other options remained
  • Acting with dignity toward those who wronged him, including his jailers
  • Taking the long view on urgent decisions while remaining firm to principle
  • Moving alone when necessary, but without betraying his friends and party
  • Articulating compelling arguments that eventually persuaded his opponents
  • Showing sensitivity to the dilemmas of adversaries, with some yielding as needed
  • Appreciating the power of symbols and public gestures of genuine magnanimity
  • Ability to forgive in order to be free from feelings of revenge and victimhood
  • Weaving key decisions over time into an evolving tapestry of equality and freedom
  • Placing reconciliation with those who opposed his struggle at the top of his agenda.