NUGGET : A leadership role carries special responsibilities and powers. The first lesson is to be aware that as a formal leader you speak and act for your group, your institution, your cause. You are no longer just “you,” but are also your role.


In 1983 I was invited to give a series of talks in South Africa. That invitation launched me on a long, intense, and varied relationship with that country, its people, and many public and private institutions, including living there from 1992-1998. South Africa is still my second home, so the death of Nelson Mandela has special personal significance.


In 1983, international sanctions against South Africa were in early stages, the internal national chatter was highly politically charged, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 20 years and his picture (and that of other ANC leaders) could not, by law, appear in the news.

Yet, there was a great deal of change happening beyond the glare of the news.

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I have long planned to focus on some of the change lessons from the South African experience, and will share these in future blogs. For now, however, and over the next few weeks, I want to focus on 7 lessons* about the use of power that Nelson Mandela’s life teaches us.


From the time Nelson Mandela went to trial as a subversive, he became both Madiba the person AND Mandela, a recognized leader of the African National Congress. He took on the mantle of power. How did he use it?


First, he used his power with AWARENESS. Listen to Nelson Mandela’s speeches and statements. It is clear that he was acutely aware that he could influence the thoughts and actions of masses of people. He knew his words and actions carried more weight because of his leadership role. His big decisions were deliberate, not knee jerk. He knew that his small statements and actions would reverberate – that when he spoke he roared, when he walked down a hall he shook the earth, when he looked at something it was like a laser. For example, it took him many years to condone violence – and then only with a focus on things not people.


He approached leadership as a conscious process. Like other great leaders (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Desmond Tutu, Lincoln, and many less prominent leaders you or I could add), he talked about the special powers and responsibilities of the formal leader. For example, “A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” (from The Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela).


Really great leaders reflect, introspect, even ruminate about what it means to have leadership authority. They know the role is different than being a specialist, a technical expert, or just speaking for themselves. They put their leadership standards out there for others to see and think about. This creates a special kind of protection from power abuse: their own words set the criteria that they and we use to evaluate them and their credibility. This obviously takes a lot of courage, for as he often reminded us, “I am no saint.” He knew he would sometimes fall short of his own ideals and standards, but articulated them anyway.


The shadow of awareness is ignorance. Too many people in formal leadership roles still treat their job as a super-sized version of their specialist role. Without awareness of what it means to have leadership authority, a leader inevitably fails to use, or worse, misuses and abuses the power that comes with their position.

A leadership role carries special responsibilities and powers. The first lesson is to be aware that as a formal leader you speak and act for your group, your institution, your cause. You are no longer just “you,” but are also your role.



*These lessons are drawn from the just published, The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders.



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