July 21st, 2011
12:44 PM GMT
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Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday recently made many people reflect on what the former South African president meant to them. It cannot be overstated just how important Mandela’s leadership was in steering South Africa away from civil war and into a democracy.

His particular style of leadership was fuelled by an innate inner strength, a deep sense of self-confidence and years of patience honed in an apartheid jail.

The characteristics that define Mandela, who was the right leader at the right time, ­provide clues for all of us on how to manage conflict, deal with enemies and play the long game.

Everyone’s welcome

As a leader, Mandela was inclusive by nature. His childhood in the rural area of the Eastern Cape, watching tribal elders deal with community problems, inculcated in him a consensual approach to politics.

In prison and in the presidency, Mandela ensured that black and white, Xhosa and Zulu, English and Afrikaans, communists and capitalists, were given equal access and representation. Inclusion of a wide group of people in decision-making was, for Mandela, the purest form of democracy.

Listen and wait

Mandela is legendary for listening to all sides of the argument, taking guidance and then offering his analysis. In speaking last and entering the debate at a late stage, Mandela not only gained a psychological advantage but also the ability to close the argument. The final decision is his, but not before he takes council.

Sometimes though, go it alone

“There comes a time when a leader must lead,” said one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners. So, in the late 1980s, when South Africa’s townships were burning and the grip of the security apparatus never seemed stronger, Mandela secretly started talking and negotiating with the apartheid state.

He abandoned his consensual approach because he knew his ANC colleagues would disagree or veto any contact with the “enemy.” Instead, he did it alone. Taking a risk; going with his instinct that the time was right for negotiation.

First impressions count

Mandela is acutely aware of the power of image. He is tall, imperial-looking and walks with a ram-rod straight back. When he walks into a room he fills it with his physical presence. When he wears his casual, silk-printed shirts he gives the aura of a wise old mystic guru.

His wife, Graca, has told me that he is “vain,” ­ always well dressed, neatly put together. This is as much about personal pride as it is about projecting an image of a man who is confident, successful and trustworthy.

Mandela sold himself as the “Go-To Guy” because not only was he a great leader, but he looked like one too. It is always fascinating to watch how people gravitate towards him in a room; he attracts people like a magnet, even children who have no idea of who he is. He’s the “main man,” as the say in South Africa, before he even opens his mouth.

The media is not the enemy

For a man who was locked away from the world for 27 years, Mandela has a refreshing understanding of the media. This is unusual for an African leader, many of whom continue to view the press with suspicion. Mandela differed from those in his own party in his attitude towards press freedom.

Zapiro, the South African political cartoonist, often recalls how Mandela told him how much he enjoyed his cartoons, even when Mandela himself was critiqued or caricatured. Importantly, Mandela also knew how to play for the cameras and manipulate the world of celebrity; he was just as easy with pop stars as he was with presidents.

Essentially, he used the mass media to help portray him as an everyman, which in turn helped him to win over those who might have been suspicious of him.

When it’s over, it’s over

One of Mandela’s greatest legacies was his decision to leave office after one term as president. Very few African leaders have given up power so smoothly and so quickly. Leading by example and showing that he wasn’t bigger than the Office of the President helped to steady South Africa’s democratic journey.

It is a lesson that is as relevant to gamblers as it is to sportsmen or CEOs: Quit when you are on top. Step away when the game is over. Do what you have to do, say goodbye and keep on walking.

Mandela’s not been seen in public for more than a year now. He’s frail, old and sometimes forgetful. As he walks away, in the twilight of life, it’s never too late to learn from one of the giants of our time.

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. André

    The Apartheid regime must have tortured him in jail, why else would a man be so frail at the age of only 93?

    July 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  2. Gaby

    Mandela's history and his message should be taught in every school, in every country in the world.
    This is a human being who embodies the concept of man at his finest hour. Nelson Mandela fulfills everything Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" talks about.
    Long life to Nelson Mandela, a leader to his people and example to all humanity.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  3. Elaine Durbach

    Could a country ever have been more blessed than to have Nelson Mandela as it's first true leader? – I think Barack Obama could be his spiritual son; their instincts seem so alike. I just wish they could have spent time together, to have had that great flame passed from hand to hand.

    August 4, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  4. Pleb

    These self appointed struggle icons are so nauseous – the rot started under his leadership – look at his legacy – incompetent corrupt dumb lazy arrogant nation – some icon yes ?

    August 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  5. Sher

    Reading this article has made me nostalgic. Mandela has gone through so much especially during Apartheid. I've always been impressed by this man. Not many of us will live to see his age but even after he's gone, his memories will never fade. You are an exemplary leader, Mr. Mandela.

    August 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  6. Chilaka Ngozi

    Life is all about Risk-Taking,especially when it involves shaping the future of generations yet unborn in the right direction. Mandella has become a role model to African Leaders & the world by extention.

    August 7, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  7. Tengkepath

    Many leaders in Africa countries should learn from Nelson Mandela and Dr John Garang de Mabior Leadership. They are great charismatic leaders. someone like mr Meseven of Uganda, Pual Kagami of Rwanda, and Omer Beshir of Sudan should read this article because they are not doing anything good to civilians. They are unwanted eggs, nobody want to be under these idiots, visionless and selfish monsters.

    August 15, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  8. sabum michael

    if wishes were horses begers will ride. how i wish Mandel was the president of Cameroon. paul biya of Cameroon should learn from this........" Quit when you are on top. Step away when the game is over. Do what you have to do, say goodbye and keep on walking..."

    August 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  9. Ruth

    A great lesson for entire humanity – that we all, regardless of colour or life circumstance, have the potential and indeed responsibility, to make a difference. That vanity upon vanity, all is vanity. Better eternal legacy than selfish greed. Black, white, man,woman, old and young, God is watching us.

    August 18, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  10. samwel arianda

    mandela you are my icon, mandela your leadership was great i love it.if africa leaders could be like you?kenya president mr mwai kibaki please why dont you follow mandela route, we are tired of your leadership of kikuyuzim please i respect you so much but what you are doing to kenya people is not good at all.please leave and go REST AND REST we are tired of you and your kikuyuzim.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  11. SUNNY .H----+2348035186551.

    What a lesson for all irrespective of colours, sex and age,we all know quit alright that he has layed down an eternal legacy for all.ITS NOT ALL ABOUT THE NUMBERS OF YEARS U LIVED BUT THE NUMBERS OF LIVES IN THE YEARS U LIVED. IMPACT IN PEOPLES LIVES IS THE KEY.LET ALL SO CALLED AFRICAN LEADERS LEARN FROM THIS AND LIVE FOR GOOD PURPOSE AND HISTORY.

    August 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  12. martin chase

    Robin got it wrong on Mandela finding the "right time" to open dialogue with the apartheid government. If everyone was not fawning over this man and for a moment took off the rose-coloured spectacles, read the real history they would know that the conditions stipulated for him to be freed was that he denounce violence....something he never did.
    ALSO, due to his policies when he became president the crime rate soared to become 20 000 people murdered every year which it remained at for many years.
    I guess countless people at the time thought Hitler was a icon as well. Putting someone on a pedestal is not only dangerous, it is irresponsible.

    August 22, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  13. martyn chase

    Ironic that my post was removed. Obviously an opposing statement is unacceptable. CNN showing it's glaring bias

    August 22, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  14. faith

    Mandala's genuine heart for his nation and not for personal gain should be a lesson to all African leaders who wants to stay in power for life even if it did not cost their life! It is sad to see where some of the leaders who would deserve to be heroes to their country end up in great shame- a name to be ridiculed instead of respect! Sorry Mubarak, Gaddafi, for what our children will read about you in History! I salute you Mandela ..and as I did Julius Nyerere( of Tanzania)

    September 6, 2011 at 1:30 am |
  15. ogajimoh

    Mandela is my mentor. He is indeed an icon to be reckoned with. It is not possible to state all the positive attributes of this great man but there is an important one left out ; he is a fearless leader: not afraid to speak out the truth at all times. He questioned many actions of the super power when the entire world leaders kept silent or spoke otherwise for the fear or being humiliated. Lessons for all African leaders if at they want to learn.

    September 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  16. elizabeth Mahlaula

    I wish President Robert Mugabe of Zim could read this article,walk away while u can

    October 3, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  17. zuko

    Mandela is our hero,he is inspiring and motivating being in prison for 27years but still willing to fight for what got you there in the 1st place its the big thing that human kind can do,as one of the young leader of south africa I think we can learn so much from tatu'madiba.he's one of a kind,ah rholihlahla.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  18. Jojo

    He is indeed a true leader exemplified. He is a role model to all and all leaders especially Africans must emulate him.

    October 5, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  19. Mandi

    Amazing how someone would compare MANDELA with HITLER and claim to knowing real history. I am all for debates but for one purporting to know "real history" to make such a comparison... it beggars belief. How someone can view 27 years hard labor with hardly any outside contact, after fighting against massacres, segregation, little to no rights and no freedom in your own country as a "self appointed struggle icon" is beyond me, if not him then who would be your struggle icon?

    South Africa was broken when Mandela came to power (which is why he even came to power), there was a lot of hate and masses were uneducated, armed and dangerous, and just because he became president did not end these issues. He made a very difficult transition much better and he is not perfect by any measure (can you imagine if he had been the same as the masses, a Robert Mugabe, no white South African would have survived to tell the tale). The Republic of South Africa is still a young country with a long way to go and will go through all the phases all countries go through but the ideal that is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the closest to perfect start a new country can get. Long live father Africa! Siyabonga (we thank you).

    October 7, 2011 at 5:51 am |
  20. Azubuike C.D

    I hope my leaders in Nigeria will learn from the life of Nelson Mandela which principally sacrificng everything for the sake of his country-his family,freedom and enduring a life of humiliation during the times of apartheid.Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!

    October 11, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  21. Azubuike C.D

    I hope my leaders in Nigeria will learn from the life of Nelson Mandela which principally sacrificng everything for the sake of his country-his family,freedom and enduring a life of humiliation during the times of apartheid.God Bless Mandela!!!

    October 11, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  22. sam sam

    In every generation, a true leader always emerge naturally. The nature has blessed the people of this age in south africa with Mandela. Nigeria has also got many leadesr like Mandela too but assecinated before the world can noticed them.

    October 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  23. lina chilambo

    i lyk da president he z xo gud.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  24. yea right

    what ever

    June 6, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  25. tannorinc

    Reblogged this on tannorinc.

    November 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  26. Mapesa Richard

    i just wish Madiba should have live for ever ! "anyway its God who gives and takes" Africa and the World has lost a great ICON and aWorld STATESMAN MANDELA ! the gap he has left is never replaceble and can not be filled.
    The legacy Madiba has left on this planet Earth will live for ever . Although Madiba is gone physically but he will live with us and the Generations to come.
    Many African leaders must learn a lesson from Madiba to enhance the legacy of Madiba on the continent of africa . the likes of MUSEVENI ,KAGAME, MUGABE etc are Total shame to the continet of africa and the rest of the world .This are Greatest DICTATORS on Africa continent who have grossly abused HUMAN RIGHTS and FREEDOMS , oppressing and killing of Citizens in their Countries .
    Its time now ripe for people of UGANDA to raise to the occasion UNITE and the MUSEVENI dictatorship and his GANG of THIEVES ,who have LOOTED the Uganda RESOURCES on expense of Ugandans.
    Ugandans have to borrow a leaf from MADIBA MANDELA by embracing use of FORCE because peaceful means have proved to make MUSEVENI to a firm his dictatorship .

    December 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
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