Happy Birthday, Mandela

Posted 07.27.2008

Known to South Africans as Madiba, Nelson Mandela turns 90 this month

This month, Nelson Mandela celebrates his 90th birthday. I’ll acknowledge that while I’ve certainly been aware of Mandela throughout my adult life and admired the movement for freedom that he led, I never really knew much about the details of his life.

Thanks to NPR and a blog post from Miki Saxon’s Leadership Turn citing an article by Richard Stengel of TIME, I’m Nelson Mandela, former President of the Republic of South Africa correcting that and looking forward to learning more. On NPR last week, I heard a captivating audio composite of Mandela and his colleagues in the trial which sentenced him to the prison on Robin Island for life. Facing the death penalty, Mandela addressed the court and said, "I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity … It is an ideal for which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

That sort of clarity and courage is explained and unpacked in Stengel’s TIME article on Mandela’s eight rules of leadership:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it

2. Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind

3. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front

4. Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport

5. Keep your friends close —€” and your rivals even closer

6. Appearances matter — and remember to smile

7. Nothing is black or white

8. Quitting is leading too

The stories behind the rules are instructive and worth the time to read them. They remind me of two points I learned years ago in reading Howard Gardner’s book, Leading Minds. After studying some of the great leaders in history, Gardner concluded that they all have two things in common. First, they have a compelling story to share and, second, their life embodies that story. By these standards and many others, Mandela is a leader we should all admire and seek to learn from.