Nelson Mandela’s Leadership


Nelson Mandela is widely known for his extraordinary personality and exceptional contribution to his people’s well-being. The struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa became his life’s calling. People who knew the ‘father of the nation’ personally said that he was a truly transformational leader. Nelson Mandela believed that the arrangements of the past should not be the guide for the future (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). He set a new vision and new long-term goals while also changing systems and developing his followers (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). This paper aims to discuss Nelson Mandela’s type and style of leadership and learn from his guidance while also providing evidence and reference to substantiate the discussion.

Nelson Mandela – Charismatic and Visional Leader

Nelson Mandela’s life path was full of situations where he acted as a leader. He endured the long imprisonment of 1962-1990, after being convicted of participating in a rally and leaving the country without a passport (Krensky, 2019). Mandela was released by President De Klerk after the movement for his freedom gained unprecedented power. He studied at Healdtown Methodist College and the University of Fort Hare, where he first encountered racial prejudice.

Nelson Mandela never graduated from this university since he actively engaged in political life. In 1943, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) party, which fought for liberation from apartheid (Castro and Mandela, 2016). Thanks to his collaboration with Fidel Castro in the late 50s, in 1975, Che Guevara decided to support Angola in its fight against the apartheid regime (Castro and Mandela, 2016). Che Guevara sent his troops there, making a turning point in the confrontation. The struggle ended with signing a framework for South African withdrawal from Angola and the independence of Namibia from South African colonial rule. Then, De Klerk passed the law lifting the ban from ANC and Nelson Mandela was released from prison to guide his people as a new president.

Mandela was a charismatic leader and a ‘father of the nation’, who became an object of the personality cult. According to Fragouli (2018), Mandela became a charismatic leader due to circumstances. The scientist emphasizes that in 1990, people needed a politician with a generous heart and a desire to fight the regime, and Mandela was best suited for this role. His purposes ​​perfectly coincided with the values ​​of the people who were facing an extremely stressful situation at that time. Besides, Mandela was perceived more as a representative of the community than a person who subordinated his followers (Fragouli, 2018). Thus, interaction with the people identified Nelson Mandela as a charismatic leader.

Interestingly, scientists mention that charismatic leadership has its ‘dark side’. Fragouli (2018, p. 302) admits that the illusion of charisma “can be created by displaying extraordinary enthusiasm towards distressed followers in a way that they feel he is extraordinarily qualified”. This statement does not apply to Mandela since he had political experience and was devoted to his people. Nevertheless, this type of leadership often brings tyrants or unscrupulous people into power.

Nelson Mandela was a transformational leader, and many perceived him as a visional leader. He successfully led people through fearful times since he had “a vision about the future of freedom, equality and peace” (Alfoqahaa and Jones, 2020, p. 217). Moreover, he was able to convey his non-violence ideas to society because he understood that violence could destroy the nation due to the unstable political climate. Mandela considered Mahatma Gandhi as a teacher and did not encourage any ethnic, racial or religious discrimination, showing tolerance in most cultural and political issues.

Leadership Theories and Mandela’s Transformational Leadership Style

Most scientists agree that Mandela adopted the transformational leadership style. This style is described in the Transformational Theory, developed by House and Shamir in 1993 (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). Other comprehensive leadership theories include Great Man Theory, Trait Theory, Contingency or Situational Theory, Style and Behavior Theory, Process Leadership Theory, and Transactional Theory. A Great Man Theory was developed in 1847 by Thomas Carlyle to emphasize the heroic achievements of outstanding personalities (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). Then, the Trait Theory was created by Ekvall and Arvonen in 1991, who supposed that leadership potential was predestined by physical and personal features (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). The developers of Contingency Theory assumed that there is no single right way to lead, or any particular leadership style applicable to every given situation.

It was formulated in 1977 by Greenleaf and was also called the Situational Theory. Style and Behavioral Theory was created in 1989 by Yukl, who believed that “each individual has a distinct style of leadership with which he or she feels most contented” (Nawaz and Khan, 2016, p. 2). Besides, Yukl identified several leadership styles: democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire. No less impressive is the Process Leadership Theory, distinguishing servant leadership, learning organizations, principle-centered leadership and charismatic leadership (Nawaz and Khan, 2016). Further, the Transactional Theory appeared, under which strict agreements usually regulate the interaction between the leader and followers.

The Transformational Leadership Theory is still acknowledged as the most effective and comprehensive one. In particular, Nawaz and Khan (2016, p. 3) mention that transformational leadership “distinguishes itself based on its alignment to a greater good”. The scientists add that transformational leaders raise the motivation and morality “of both the follower and the leader” (Nawaz and Khan, 2016, p. 3). This leadership style is attributed to Nelson Mandela since he united followers, showing them confidence, strengthening them, and forming a new collective future vision. According to scientists, transformational leaders “transform institutional culture through the introduction of new beliefs and goals,” going beyond the traditional transactional leadership (Mohiuddin, 2017, p. 2385). Besides, transformational leaders usually trust their followers and allow them to grow and improve themselves.

Therefore, such leaders have a profound vision and a sense of purpose that paves new ways. Transformational leaders devote themselves to a non-violent struggle for the values of their followers, putting their interests above momentary personal preferences. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela also presented elements of the Process Leadership style since he showed both servant and learning organization leadership. In particular, Mandela focused on people and served their needs while also developing and nurturing his own and collective vision of the future independent state of South Africa. Supporters of the Great Man theory would also find Mandela worthy of being included in the list of people who changed history. Besides, the President of South Africa had his unique management style, which was determined by his high morality and deep understanding (Marques, 2017). Finally, he possessed a multitude of innate and acquired personal traits that helped him become an outstanding statesman.

Learning from Nelson Mandela

The life path and leadership style of Nelson Mandela was primarily determined by his attitude to life and his nation. Difficulties tempered his character and helped him develop approaches good enough to win in the most hopeless situations and comprehensive enough to follow. Scientists note that “Mandela used the time in captivity to re-evaluate his life and purpose as a person (Marques, 2017, p. 11). While in prison, he began to study the Afrikaans language, which the guards spoke, to communicate with them (Moodley and Adam, 2017). Most of his comrades considered Afrikaans, which was a variation of the Dutch language, as a symbol and instrument of oppression. However, Mandela believed that only by understanding the opponent would he be able to find common ground. Therefore, this approach is a manifestation of the exceptional wisdom of this outstanding leader, and it should be put into practice.

Mandela always remained true to his views and rejected several proposals for parole in return for refusing to fight against apartheid. Such persistence is another attractive feature that should be adopted in the habit. Moreover, scientists consider Mandela’s behavior after release from prison as the politician’s most significant moral victory. According to Marques (2017, p. 11), “Mandela’s greatest strength in his post-prison years was a life without bitterness, but with understanding why things had to happen the way they did”. Finally, restraint, wisdom, and non-violence helped him become a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, along with De Clerk (Marques, 2017). Nelson Mandela always insisted on adherence to universal ethical principles, to human rights and constitutional law, even in the conditions of the most violent and chaotic struggle.


Thus, Nelson Mandela’s type and style of leadership were analyzed, and the elements of his guidance that could be realized in practice were identified. To summarize, Nelson Mandela became a charismatic leader by the will of fate, although his advice was a prime example of transformational leadership. He became the ‘father of the nation,’ and received the Nobel Peace Prize thanks to the non-violent and wise struggle for his followers’ rights. That is why Nelson Mandela is an exceptional role model.

Reference List

Alfoqahaa, S. and Jones, E. (2020) ‘Leading at the edge of chaos: historical perspectives on the qualities of leadership for cultural diversity and conflict resolution’, International Journal of Public Leadership, 16(2), pp. 217-248.

Castro, F. and Mandela, N. (2016) How far we slaves have come, 1st edn, Cape Town: Kwela.

Fragouli, E. (2018) ‘The dark side of charisma and charismatic leadership’, The Business and Management Review, 9(4), pp. 298-307.

Krensky, S. (2019) DK life stories Nelson Mandela. New York: Penguin.

Marques J. (2017) ‘Leadership and purpose’, in Marques, J. and Dhiman, S. (eds.) Leadership today. New York: Springer, pp. 7-19.

Moodley, K. and Adam, K. (2017) ‘Becoming Mandela: educational implications of his leadership’, in Soudien, C. (ed.) Nelson Mandela: comparative perspectives of his significance for education. Rotterdam: Brill Sense, pp. 9-16.

Mohiuddin, S.S. (2017) ‘The transactional and transformational approaches to leadership in corporate sector’, International Journal of Science and Research, 6(1), pp. 2382-2386.

Nawaz, Z. and Khan, I. (2016) ‘Leadership theories and styles: a literature review’, Leadership, 16(1), pp.1-7.

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