Character • Comrade • Leader • Prisoner • Negotiator • Statesman (Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg)
An axiom of leadership studies is that leaders are made, not born. Numerous leadership theories also abound: servant leadership, authentic leadership, transformational leadership, strategic leadership, situational leadership, etc. Practitioners and scholars of leadership will often argue the merits and disadvantages of each ad nauseam.
I traveled to South Africa for two weeks to study, learn and practice culturally responsive and inclusive education. However, the lessons I learned from studying Nelson Mandela’s life and practice of leadership have been invaluable to me as a leadership scholar. While Mandela was born into leadership – he would be groomed to advise tribal royalty as his father before him - he was also very diligent and intentional about every leadership decision he made. He sacrificed much, nearly his life for a just cause: “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an idea which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die for.” He uttered these words during the Rivonia trial where he faced execution, instead sentenced to life in prison for treason and sabotage.
While I don’t have the time or space to mete out Mandela against every leadership theory, as I read his autobiography I saw traces of his leadership practice in each. He was in many ways a perfect leader, sacrificing much of his personal life for a cause greater than him.