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The Leadership Lessons of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela speaking in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005.
Nelson Mandela speaking in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005.Photograph by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Bloomberg

As the world celebrates the life and legacy of former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela, we in the business community should take a moment to consider three powerful lessons we can distill from his leadership that are relevant for leaders at every level, particularly those young people who currently populate our business schools, who aspire to lead well and create lasting value in the world.

Leadership is behavioral, not positional
Though he only served as South Africa’s president for five years, Nelson Mandela is a classic case study of how one can lead without formal authority. Over the 27 years he was imprisoned, he exerted influence. Over his five-year presidency, he exerted influence. In the decade and a half following his retirement from politics, Mandela’s influence grew as a global humanitarian and philanthropist. Admittedly, his influence was enlarged by virtue of the presidency, but positions and titles don’t define great leaders, great leaders define and leverage the power of their positions to have a positive impact.