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Nelson Mandela really must be one of the biggest leaders of our time. Maybe he’s the biggest. The way he approached prison, his presidency and the quest for reconciliation in his country are more then inspirational to me. He is so huge as it comes to what I consider to be great leadership, I always feel a bit overwhelmed. Maybe you recognize that feeling. This might be a reason to believe Nelson Mandela’s leadership is way out of our league.

But that’s far from the truth!

How to lead like Mandela.

Here are 5 strategies (+ 1 bonus) that made Mandela such a great leader and that we can all implement in our life & work, starting today.

1. Being firm when it comes to the topic at hand…

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

Throughout his long active life, Nelson Mandela fought for the freedom and equality of the people in South Africa. Before he went to prison in 1962 he was militant in his approach. After he was released (at 70!) he took the road of negotiations and reconciliation.
Even though his approach took a different course, his cause never changed.

Unless you want to change the entire world, it’s not absolutely necessary to pick one topic and stick to it. What will be helpful in day to day life though, is to adopt Mandela’s way of being firm on the cause that you’re aiming for, while being open to accept different ways of getting there.

2. … and being ‘soft’ when it comes to the relation with the people involved.

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

For me, this was one of Mandela’s biggest strengths: the ability to not completely identify the individual people you’re talking to, with the problem you’re trying to solve. By detaching the problem from the people involved, you can view the people you’re negotiating with as people, and build a relationship with them. This makes life a lot easier, more enjoyable and gets you to results much quicker.

3. Flexibility

“Unlike some politicians, I can admit to a mistake.”

“Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”

Oh, what I would have given to have flexibility as a natural talent! Unfortunately, I really didn’t and for years I saw giving in and admitting to mistakes as a sign of personal failure. It took me years to learn to be okay with making a mistake and generously admitting to it. Forgiving people for the mistakes they make is just as big of an asset. Once you can forgive yourself and others for things that went wrong, it opens the way to resolving any issue.

So, how to learn if, like me, you’re not a natural? I believe this is basically a mindset that you can push yourself to adopt.
These pointers might be helpful in that process:
1) Realize that solution finding and decision-making are part of a creative process.
2) Creativity is very personal, so the decisions and solutions you come up with are personal too, to the extent that they are unique to you.
3) That doesn’t mean that you ARE your decision or solution. You really, really aren’t. They are merely what you can create from your perspective.
4) Other people go through the same process and come up with what they believe is right, which will be obviously different from you as they are different people.

5) And because we value diversity, and because no-one knows all the things, and because it’s just bad to make a mistake or to have to agree that someone else has come up with a better solution/approach/perspective, it’s not bad (maybe even good) to admit to a mistake or having to forgive someone for making one.

4. The courage to deal with fear.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Fear is also very personal. Well, except for some general things most reasonable people fear ☺, but I don’t think Mandela is talking about giant alligators in this quote. (Although admittedly, in his case, the fear of dying might have been a fear he had to conquer to be able to do what he did.)

The fears I believe we all have to conquer to really be brave, have to do with insecurity, uncertainty or feeling small, vulnerable or unworthy. And it’s really, really important for all of us to conquer those, so that we prevent them from holding us back from…

5. … living the life you’re capable of!

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

I see two reasons that stop us from living the life we’re capable of and both have to do with fear:
1) the fear of being too small to be able to make a difference;
2) the fear of becoming too big and alienating the people around you.

But please, please:
Don’t let fear stop you from giving us all that you have to offer!

Bonus: Serving

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

I said it in an earlier blog: serving is one of the absolute most important elements of great leadership. Actually, I believe it is THE most important thing. If you really feel that it’s your role to add value to a shared goal and to the people you’re leading, is what sets the stage for greatness.
It’s that simple.

So how to lead like Mandela?

Use these 5 strategies and implement them in your life today. You don’t even have to have a job that says you are a leader. You need that sort of permission slib, you are a leader! Ad we can really all do this. Maybe it’ll take practice, but it’s very, very much worth it. Apart from you, the people around you will benefit from your ‘Mandela Approach’ to the world and that will make you an inspiration to others.
Let’s spread it!

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