Nelson Mandela leadership

Throughout history, great leaders have learned how to become resilient. Built through hardship, challenge and perseverance, their resilience allows them to inspire others and effect change.

Nelson Mandela is a prime example of a leader whose resilience helped him change the world. Mandela’s leadership style is inspirational, and his power of resilience allowed him to fight through overwhelming obstacles. 

Following the lessons we’ve learned from Mandela, along with help from a resilience speaker will put you on a path towards resilience in leadership.

The Resilient Nelson Mandela

We know that Nelson Mandela was a social rights activist, politician and philanthropist who became South Africa’s first Black president (1994-1999), but today I want to talk about the challenges he faced that shaped his resilience as a leader.

Mandela’s passion for social rights led him to become involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and in his twenties, he joined the African National Congress in 1942. Over the next 20 years, Mandela directed a peaceful, nonviolent defiance campaign against the South African government and its racist policies. This campaign led to a 27-year imprisonment for ‘political offenses’. 

After being released, he continued his social rights efforts. In 1993, Mandela and South African President, F.W. de Klerk, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work towards dismantling the country’s apartheid system.

The challenges and opposition Mandela faced were staggering, but he persevered and followed his beliefs. This power of resilience made him one of the greatest leaders in history.

Being a leader is not always easy.

Decades ago, leaders had to fight for territory and humanity, and today’s battles bring new challenges. Leaders need to inspire their teams through never-ending changes and fast-paced, inconsistent markets.

It is impossible to thrive without resilience. How can we learn from the great leaders like Mandela to face today’s challenges? Let’s learn more about Nelson Mandela’s leadership style to find out.

Resilience in Leadership That We Can Learn from Mandela

Mandela wasn’t born a transformational leader. Through his life experiences, he acquired traits that elevated him to this greatness. 

Being Authentic

This sounds simple, but many leaders get so caught up in what they think they should be doing, they forget why they became a leader. 

Mandela was driven by purpose: abolishing apartheid and establishing racial equity, and throughout his career, he never lost sight of that. Beginning with his anti-colonial work as a young lawyer, he fought to overthrow the apartheid system. The same oppressive system led him to be jailed in 1962.

At one point during his imprisonment, Mandela refused to accept an early release because it was predicated on him denouncing his values. He chose to remain in prison, rather than compromise his beliefs.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I know if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” – Nelson Mandela

Authenticity like that can’t be faked. When it comes to dealing with hardship, authentic leaders know and believe in their worth and remain steadfast in their values. They do not let changes in their external environment influence their leadership style.


Nelson Mandela developed empathy from suffering defeat, abandonment, loss and unspeakable injustice. By willingly and joyfully lifting the world’s pain onto his shoulders, he won the support of millions.

Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others. It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with someone’s viewpoint, it means you appreciate what they are going through.

The most successful leaders are empathetic. They connect with people, which is key to long-term sustainability for any business. By understanding their employees, leaders can help them succeed. Empathetic leaders inspire trust, which strengthens relationships and leads to greater collaboration and improved productivity.

Ability to Control Emotion

No matter how impossible his situation, Mandela’s ability to keep his emotions under control served him throughout his life. When a leader remains calm in highly stressful situations, people are more likely to listen.

Mandela didn’t ignore his emotions. After all, he is human with feelings, but he knew if he let his emotions rule, they would get in the way of his goals.

When you face obstacles, it’s best to accept things as they are in a neutral position. By remaining neutral, you enable a calm state of being, which allows you to remain clear-headed as you face the challenge and work through solutions. An impactful leadership training program can elevate your expertise in this area.


The power of optimism is a force to be reckoned with and one that cannot be taken away from you, unless you let it.  

During Mandela’s time in prison on Robben Island, he was insulated by layers of isolation that removed him from the media attention on his case. For the first decade of his imprisonment, he and other Black prisoners were only allowed a visit from one family member every six months. Besides these rare visits, they could only communicate with the outside world twice a year through letters limited to 500 words each.

This isolation and degradation would be too much for many of us, but Mandela wasn’t going to let anything stop him. He continued his fight against apartheid in secret by smuggling out letters and messages and working with his compatriots, both inside and outside the prison. 

Good intentions, an eye on the goal and a healthy dose of optimism, will get you where you’re meant to be. 

As Mandela said, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Fostering Genuine Relationships

Love takes many forms. Whether romantic, platonic, familial or love of country, it’s a powerful force that can effect change. 

Everyone has different ideologies, but together they can work towards a common goal. The people of South Africa wanted to dismantle apartheid, even if they had different approaches. Mandela’s willingness to reach out to and engage with others to support and love, even those who hated and feared him, connected everyone to his purpose. 

Mandela turned would-be enemies into allies by showing solidarity with his fellow inmates. Their strength in numbers allowed them to steadily achieve improvements in prison conditions. 

Fostering supportive relationships can help when facing challenges. When your team knows they are an essential part of your goals, they will be a strong support system. By showing people the bigger picture, and ensuring they have each other’s backs, you will build sustainable and resilient relationships in the workplace. A leadership training program or engaging a resilience speaker can also spark transformational resilience and accelerate your leadership abilities to the next level.

Quit Being a Quitter

Nelson Mandela was not a quitter. He studied law off and on for 50 years, even though he failed about half of his courses. That would be an endgame for many of us, but not Mandela. A two-year diploma in law and his university degree allowed him to continue practicing. In August 1952, he and Oliver Tambo established Mandela and Tambo, South Africa’s first Black law firm. 

While in prison, he studied his craft through a distance learning course from the University of London. Despite overwhelming obstacles, he received a law degree in 1989.

Imagine what the world might look like today if Mandela let his obstacles win?

Leaders cannot be quitters. The greatest leaders, like Mandela, set their purpose, but know when to pivot if something challenges their values or isn’t worth their time or energy.

Nelson Mandela’s traits can be applied to your own resilience as a leader.

Becoming Change Proof

From the beginning, Mandela believed in himself. He knew that a single person could be a catalyst to change the world, and he bravely embraced that role, especially when it came to ending apartheid.

Changes are inevitable and are necessary for growth. When you train yourself to be comfortable with flexibility, you will be capable of handling anything life throws at you.

To learn more about becoming a resilient leader, check out my newest book Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-term Resilience

Practicing Self-Care

Mandela knew that he needed to care for himself first in order to care for others. He exercised four days a week during his imprisonment, using his past experience as a boxer and runner to guide his routine. This helped keep his mind and body agile.

He once wrote, “I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter.” 

In the workplace, practicing self-care comes in many forms, such as:

  • Practical: Delegate tasks to protect your time
  • Emotional: Set aside quality time to engage with your support system
  • Physical: Incorporate exercise and meditation into your daily routine

For more examples, check out my daily practice to build resilience.

The Power of Resilience in Leadership

Mandela showed us that a core trait of transformational leadership is resilience. This trait helped him rapidly adapt and recover through extremely difficult times. Nelson Mandela’s leadership is a great example of how to improve yourself through transformational resilience.

When disaster strikes, before blaming the weather, take a moment to reflect and reframe. With a new perspective, you may realize that summer was winter’s plan all along. 

How Can a Leadership Keynote Speaker Help?

Learning how to become resilient doesn’t happen overnight, but by learning Nelson Mandela’s traits, incorporating resilience habits into your daily routine and engaging a leadership keynote speaker, will set you on your way to mastering the power of resilience.

If you’d like to learn more, contact us by calling 877.697.4868 or sending an email to You can expect a response within 24 hours. 

Nelson Mandela’s leadership was a very inspirational and influential legacy that will live on for generations to come. By following the trail Mandela blazed, you will also leave a lasting impact on the world around you.