Nelson Mandela Day 2017: What Makes a Great Leader?

July 18, 2017
— Ideas Blog —

There are many traits that, together, can equate to a “great” leader. While it is a well-known fact that Nelson Mandela was, indeed, a great leader, many have theorized why, specifically. What was the “it” factor? Was it his sacrifice? Was it his genuine ability to inspire citizens in both peaceful and armed protest? We have handpicked a few qualities we believe made Nelson Mandela great, and why.

  1. He was a natural born leader. At his birth, Mandela was given the name Rolihalahla (meaning “branch of the tree” or “troublemaker” in Xhosa). However, at a very young age, a teacher nicknamed him Nelson, after the British admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson had fought in both the American War of Independence (also referred to as the Revolutionary War in the States), and the French Revolutionary War. He was revered as a war hero at the time, making this gesture from teacher to student an honorary one. She clearly saw promise in young Mandela. As he grew older, he became the first person in his family to attend school. After his first attempt at higher education, he led his cousin Lawrence in running away to avoid arranged marriages.
  2. He was a team player. While at school at the University of Fort Harre, Mandela and his friend/future business partner Oliver Tambo were sent home due to participating in a protest against racial segregation. In 1952, he and Tambo opened the first all-black law firm in South Africa, where they provided affordable legal counsel to the suppressed black community. Together they joined the African National Congress (ANC) and established the organization’s youth league. The teamwork was returned when Tambo started the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign in 1980, making Mandela a household name internationally, and thereby playing a major role in both Mandela’s release and his election to presidency.
  3. He held himself accountable for his actions. When he was arrested in 1962 (disguised as a chauffeur, mind you), Mandela was put on trial in what would later be called the Rivonia Trial. It was here where he not only admitted his guilt, but also delivered the following famous quote:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

After this speech, the jury decided to sentence him to life in prison rather than the death sentence the prosecution was aiming for. Some say that speech saved his life.

  1. He acknowledged others’ impact. Mandela always gave credit where credit was due. For instance, during the filming of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” in which he had a cameo as a teacher reading one of Malcolm X’s famous speeches, he declined to read the closing word “by any means necessary” so that they would cut to actual footage of Malcolm X.
  2. He led by example. Into the mid-1990s, there was a thick racial tension presiding over South Africa, even down to rugby. The black South Americans despised the all-white national rugby team, Springboks. At the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as South Africa faced New Zealand in the final, Mandela arrived in a Springboks jersey with captain Francois Pienaar’s number on the back. His appearance in the stadium, and the 62,000-person cheer that followed, is still known as one of the most unifying moments in history.

In honor of the 67 years Nelson Mandela spent vigilantly fighting toward change and equality for all humans, on July 18th every year, we, as citizens of the world, are encouraged to spend just 67 minutes doing good for others.

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