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Nelson Mandela: Icon of Influential Leadership


Leaders are most challenged by the dire need of being able to influence the people they lead and to articulate their leadership skills in achieving the goals of their establishments. The leader’s ability to influence the followers is a major aspect that needs to be considered if the leader aims at succeeding in leadership. Many people have come up with strategies that aim at nurturing people in leadership to become influential leaders. Clarke-Epstein (2002: p 11) indicates that leadership can mean different things to different people; he indicates that “teaching, coaching, assigning, cheerleading, counseling, guiding, correcting, protecting, explaining and observing” are all aspects of leadership that defines a leader. Further, he indicates that in leadership, all the mentioned aspects occur at the same time but not separately. The level of influence of a leader to the followers will be demonstrated when the leader undertakes to accomplish the above mentioned aspects.

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Nelson Mandela is one of the most influential world leaders not only in South Africa and Africa in particular but also in other quarters at the global level. His leadership has been interpreted and analyzed in various aspects to a point of viewing it as a myth. He therefore stands as an icon of influential leader whose values, ethics, and leadership style every organization would aspire for its leaders to succeed. The legacy of Mandela’s leadership has been greatly improved in his life after serving as the president of the republic of South Africa for one term. This paper examines the different aspects of Mandela’s leadership that has made him a very influential leader at local as well as global level.

Nelson Mandela as an influential leader

When people try to express what they understand by the term leadership, different responses will be given. It is true that the actual and precise definition of leadership may not be arrived at but most certainly all the people move towards a common explanation in the meaning of leadership and what entails influential leadership. Claycomb and Holik (n.d) on their survey of people’s understanding of leadership summarizes the concept of leadership as being a person’s influence or performance of certain tasks that aim at achieving the goals.

Nelson Mandela has influenced the politics of South Africa in his role as on of the leaders of the National Congress Party and later as the president of the republic. According to Stengel (1994: p 1) Mandela in his political career has positively moved ahead of other leaders to create policies whose fruits have been realized in present times and probably will have a big impact in future.

The level of influence in Mandela’s leadership can be assessed by his ability to influence people of different racial backgrounds, age groups, social status, and political affiliations towards taking a common course towards a certain issue in his life as a young person, political leader and in his life after presidency.

Mandela’s character traits as a leader

The first character trait exhibited by Mandela is that he is a diplomatic leader. He was able to match people, tasks, and interests in such a way that it was possible to achieve the best results with minimum resistance from his followers. An influential leader is the one who is able to forge people into a team geared towards accomplishing a goal without getting any adverse reactions. He was able to forge cooperation with people in dealing with issues towards a common goal.

Mandela always upheld the trait of being altruistic. Mandela always contributes to the issues of the country and makes efforts in resolving and pushing for issues not for his own glory but of the other people. Claycomb and Holik (n.d) describes the trait of being altruistic as the desire of a leader to sustain the wellbeing of the followers he leads. Mandela’s selflessness in the leadership positions is geared towards ensuring that the community he/she leads becomes better in all aspects. Stengel (1994) while reporting on Mandela’s leadership says “If there has been a consistent criticism of Mandela over the years, it is that he is too willing to see the good in people”. Although Mandela, out of his struggles in fighting for the independence of the republic became the first president of South Africa, he was doing all this for the glory of the Africans in South Africa. This trait has made Mandela one of the most influential leaders in the country in pre-colonial and also in post colonial times. When he makes contributions in the policies that govern the country, he does it not for his own glory but for the good of the people of South Africa.

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Mandela’s aggressiveness in focusing and working toward a given goal has boosted his influence to the like minded people in the country. He has always taken a long view which has helped him win battles that were started many years back. He was able to set goals and to keep them rolling while at the same time maintaining the interests of the people at the forefront. By being aggressive, Mandela was able to push for his interests to a point of suffering in order to achieve his goals. His ability to aggressively fight for the interests of the society influenced other African leaders and the society in general to focus and work towards a common goal.

The influence of Mandela’s leadership has been boosted by his being a visionary leader. The trait of a leader being visionary describes his ability to see ahead, identify opportunities or problems and mobilize the community and other leaders in working towards making the vision real or solving any associated problem.

Hull in his review of the book – Mandela the authorized biography (2001: p 4) indicates that Mandela’s qualities as a leader of being creative and innovative and having an above-average memory, his ability to learn and recall things has made him an exemplary leader.

The other character trait5 of nelson Mandela that have enabled him to gain recognition in the world is his ability to motivate other people in a manner that this people feel empowered. According to Hull (2001: p 4), Mandela is said to have excelled in his leadership from his early days as a young politician due to his ability to empower and motivate others to work towards a common goal. Also his influence to others has been tagged to his ability to interact with other people through his strong interpersonal skills. This trait is demonstrated when it is reported that Mandela entertains people in various functions while indicating good will and extends hand to warmly welcome each participant such that they always feel present to a point of making personal friendship. (Hull 2001: p 1)

Mandela’s legacy has been created most importantly by his administrative skills. In administration, while he combines all other traits of motivating other people in the societies, Mandela is a visionary leader. He has demonstrated this trait through his ability to focus in the future, set goals and make efforts to respond to the visions by engaging other people in the society.

Leadership ethics

Mandela was able to make an impact in the politics of South Africa due to his highly upheld values and ethics both in leadership and also in life situations. Kouzes and Posner (2007: p 35) indicates that leadership competence is the ability of the leader to do and influence things. Mandela is competent ion various field. His competence can be reflected in the track record of the leader. Competence inspires confidence in being able to influence the whole community the leader leads. Mandela’s competence in influencing people across generations is his ability to interact with high profile people, old people, youths, and even children. Mandela’s competence has been demonstrated in his ability to influence the people through his interpersonal skills, motivating others and also in administration.

In many situations, Mandela is able to influence the people in the society through is highly upheld values that includes honesty, equality, responsibility, accuracy, respect, loyalty, credibility teamwork, empathy, generosity, and flexibility. These ethical values have enabled Mandela to maintain peoples trust in him. Therefore, it is of great importance for the leaders to make known their values to the constituents so that they can develop trust.

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Arguments have been raised about influential leaders being an aspect that is born in a leader. Nelson Mandela is one of the world’s influential leaders who have been linked with these arguments. The values that Mandela upheld are suggested to have developed in him right from birth. (2009: Para 4) indicates that Mandela was able to emerge as an influential leader through his empathy, honesty, confidence, and wisdom. Further he argues that Mandela’s wisdom could be depicted in his quotes as a leader.

Leadership style of an influential leader

Different leaders apply different leadership styles in order to achieve their goals. Leadership style is the manner in which a leader gets things done. It describes the approach the leader employs in giving directions, motivating people and implementing plans.

Mandela employs the participative and democratic leadership style. He includes some members of his/her followers in decision making. It is reported that Mandela always seeks opinions from other members before making conclusions about a decision. Stengel (1994: p 1) when describing Mandela’s leadership style indicates that he always listened to the views of other members when he chaired the meetings of the National Congress Party. His style of leadership is demonstrated by his ability to weigh the opinions of the other members in any organization he led. Mandela said that “when you want a heard to move in a certain direction, you stand at the back with a stick” Stengel (1994: p 1). In applying this style, the leader leads the followers from behind and makes intervention in resolving deadlocks emanating from different opinions. When leaders include the other players in decision making, all the workers engage the tasks with a common vision. In this style the leader has the opportunity to obtain extra information from the other members and this helps him in increasing the experience and confidence in leadership. Kobie Coetsee who was once a minister of justice has been reported describing Mandela as a leader who acknowledges his shortcomings while at the same time believes in himself (Hull, 2001; p 5).

Influential leader and teamwork

The leader can’t work alone without a following. Therefore leadership is about people but not individuals. Therefore as leaders go about their day to day businesses they have to interact with the people they lead. As mentioned earlier, one trait that Mandela has as an influential leader his being a visionary leader. In this aspect, he focuses on the future and engages the people to work towards that vision. Mandela was able to share his visions with the members in the society to foster them towards a common goal. The charisma of a leader has a lot of influence on the emotions and self esteem of his followers. It has been indicated that a leader’s efficacy depends on the bondage the leader creates with their subordinates. (Sanchez, 2000 cited in Baeza, Lao Meneses and Romá, n.d)

It is argued that the only way leaders can be able to have an influence in the teams is through communication with the team members. In addition a charismatic leader is expected to frequently interact with the team members through discussions on work and related issues which leads to a higher influence of the leader unlike leaders who do not readily interact with the subordinates (Baeza et al, n.d). Mandela’s leadership was based on democracy where the decisions would follow the majority principle.

There are several methods that the leader can interact with the team members to have an effective and influential impact. In his leadership Mandela fostered effective teamwork through actively engaging in the tasks and encouraging cooperative behavior among the group members. Mandela’s ability to create teams in forming of parties enabled him to instill a common vision for the people where member’s contributions were positively received for the good of the team. DuBrin (2009: p 261) indicates that the role of a leader in establishing and developing teamwork is helping the team members to develop emotional intelligence. Mandela’s achievements could not have been achieved if effective teamwork was not embraced as a leadership tool towards achieving a common goal.

Communication process of an influential leader

Although in most cases Mandela was recognized by being given a leadership position he always allowed for consultations among the involved parties to reach a consensus. He could only make each member of his constituents feel a sense of belonging by giving them space to make their contributions towards a certain situation. Despite this fact Mandela is a leader who always maintained focus of what he wanted and made the parties well aware of his goals. Stengel (1994: p 2) quoted Mandela saying “The people want things explained to them clearly and rationally. They recognize when someone is speaking to them seriously. They want to see how you handle difficult situations, whether or not you stay calm.” Clark (2008) indicates that effective communication happens when the receiver understands the exact information or ideas that require to be passed. The communication process is the chain of understanding that binds the members of a community together from the top to the bottom, bottom to top and sideways. Since an influential leader employs the democratic leadership style which allows for consultative communication, the leader uses a communication process that fosters such consultations.

Between him and other political parties and individuals, Mandela is reported to have rarely engaged in arguments but employed a communication style that encouraged consultative meetings. Hull, (2001: p 3). Mandela’s communication skills can be demonstrated in his leadership in various forums. Mandela has good listening skills where he is able to weigh the opinions of different people before consensus is reached. Through listening, Mandela was able to exploit the views of other people to better his skills in leadership.

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Mandela’s succession plans

Mandela’s succession remains one of the aspects that made his legacy even more famous among other aspects of his leadership. Mandela chose to leave leadership, unlike many people’s expectations that he would compensate for his years in prison with remaining as the president of the Republic of South Africa. On view of Mandela’s succession plan, his task was to set the course but not to steer the ship. It is the conviction of many that Mandela became a greater leader by choosing to abandon leadership. (Ambler 2008: Para 8)

Mandela had an effective control of the succession of his leadership. Mandela made sure that his successor shared the same vision with his on the future of the country. By deciding to step down as the president of South Africa after one term and organizing for his succession, Mandela spelled out clearly that influential leaders need to be selfless. Mandela was able to show that leadership is all about achieving goals but not looking for glory. While Mandela gave the citizens the freedom to elect their preferred leader he was able to identify Thambo Mbeki as a potential successor who could steer the country’s course towards his vision or the future of the nation.


It can be concluded that the two most important aspects required for a leader to be influential is the personality and the leadership style employed. The qualities of a leader are anchored on his/her personality. The values that a leader holds in his leadership determine the extent with which he is able to influence the other members and leaders towards a common goal.

Mandela’s influence as a leader can be attributed to his natural charisma to influence people as well the leadership skills that have been acquired in his long career in political leadership. In addition, his personal traits have enabled him to positively influence the people in the society to have a common vision. It is evident that for a leader to be influential he or she must maintain and uphold a high degree of moral and ethical code of conduct that is demonstrated in his or her day to day undertakings.

Although Mandela had his own shortcoming as a leader in his career as a leader, in most of the cases, he was able to demonstrate leadership aspects that have been cited in literature as prerequisites of an influential leader. In his charisma in motivating and influencing other people in the society towards a common course, Mandela’s leadership skills have been demonstrated in his wisdoms through the quotes and his ideologies in leadership.

The magnitude of the influence that nelson Mandela has as a world leader is demonstrated by the fact that he was accorded with the Nobel Prize as one of the world’s leader who was able to make an impact in the lives of people not only in South Africa but also in other nations. Nelson Mandela is therefore a role model who bears majority of the qualities of a good leader.


Baeza, A. H. et al. (2009). Leader charisma and affective team climate: The moderating role of the leader’s influence and interaction. Web.

Clark, D. (2008). Communication and Leadership, Big Dog and Little Dog’s juxtaposition. Web.

Clarke-Epstein, C. (2002). 78 important questions a leader should ask and answer. NY: AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn.

Claycomb, T. H and Holik, J. S. Search for Leadership. Web.

DuBrin, A. J. (2009). Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills. Mason: Cengage Learning.

Heathfield, S. M. (2009). Leadership Values and Ethics. Web.

Hull, K. (2001). Book review: Mandela the authorized biography. London: Harper Collins Publishers. Web.

Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (2007). The leadership challenges. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons. (2009). Leadership skills: are they made or born? Web.

Stengel, R. (1994). Making of a leader. Web.

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