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What MBAs Can Learn From Nelson Mandela: Principled Yet Forgiving Leadership

Leaders and citizens across the world have united in mourning for Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday aged 95. MBAs can learn from his principled yet forgiving leadership style.

Fri Dec 6 2013

Leaders and citizens across the world have united in mourning for Nelson Mandela. The man who led his country to democracy after serving 27 years in prison has died, aged 95.

Born in a country where black people were treated as second-class citizens, Mandela dedicated his life to equality and became the first democratically elected South African President in 1994.

President Zuma of South Africa announced last night on national TV that Mandela passed away peacefully in his home surrounded by his family. He had been suffering from a recurrent lung infection and had been hospitalized four times since December last year.

It marked the end of an historic era that saw South Africa narrowly avoid a civil war on its path towards democracy.

He became an international symbol of peace and inspired generations to change the world for the better. He is one of the world's greatest leaders and the international community united in praising the former President and all that he has acheived in his life.

President Zuma said last night: "The founding father of our nation has departed. May his soul rest in peace. God bless Africa."

US President Barack Obama said: "He no longer belongs to us - he belongs to the ages."

Jailed for resisting the white supremacist government, Mandela became a symbol for South Africa's struggle against injustice. Despite decades of abuse by the apartheid government, Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 with a message of reconciliation.

After leading the African National Congress to power in 1994, he served a single five-year term. There are many lessons in leadership that can be learned from his remarkable struggle to unite South Africa.


It is a sad fact that the business world remains unintentionally unrepresentative.

Gender, too, remains a problem. In the UK, women hold just 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions, and only 3% of board chairpersons are female. In some countries, female MBAs earn up to $8,000 less than males in their first post-graduation jobs.

Mandela had to wait until he was 76 before he held any public office in South Africa. Until 1994, only white people were allowed to take part in politics or vote. He dedicated himself to equality and brought the country away from apartheid, and towards democracy.

Business Schools are becoming increasingly more international and representative of the global population. At London Business School, 90 per cent of their MBA cohort last year were from overseas. 50 per cent of MBAs starting at ESADE Business School in 2012 were from emerging markets.

Many lessons can be taken from Mandela's remarkable journey, and equality is an important aspect for the world's future business leaders.

Collaborating With Your Rivals

The men who were Mandela's most bitter political enemies, those who had run or supported the apartheid system, showed him great respect and admiration after his release from prison.

The Springbok rugby players, some of whom were Afrikaners, pictured embracing Mandela at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, are perhaps one of the best examples of Mandela's far-reaching, applauded leadership style.

But by investing his trust in people, even those who had approved his life sentence back in 1964, repaid him with loyalty.

Business is notoriously competitive. But as many successful entrepreneurial leaders, such as Richard Branson, agree, collaboration can be key to success.

Aspiring leaders can take confidence in that much like Mandela did with Kobie Coetsee, Minister of Justice during the last 14 years of apartheid and Niel Barnard, the last intelligence chief of the apartheid era, embracing your former rivals can pay dividends.

Resolving Conflict

There are many different styles of leadership. So too are there different types of people in any organization. As MBA programs become increasingly international, keeping your company united becomes crucial to success.

Mandela refused freedom in return for renouncing armed struggle. He suffered for decades in peaceful protest, locked up in South Africa, while the international condemnation of apartheid grew and sanctions eventually weakened the economy.

He offered dialog, from his prison cell, to those who suppressed his beliefs and removed his freedom. He was even taken to meet President Botha and, later, his successor President de Klerk.

For the four years after his release from prison, Mandela coordinated a "negotiated revolution". In office, he showed magnanimity. He invited his prosecutor to lunch and even appointed one of his old prison chiefs as Ambassador to Austria.

His tolerance was astounding and his leadership style enabled South Africa to unite. MBAs should learn from him and today unite in mourning one of the greatest leaders that ever lived.