Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela

With many of the world's leaders gathered in South Africa to honor Nobel Prize winner and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, it seemed only apropos to acknowledge the many leadership lessons that he imparted. To say he was a great man would be an understatement. How he spent 27 years in prison and walked away with an attitude and spirit that allowed him to rise above the experience and become one of the names most associated with peace and forgiveness is beyond understanding. When he spoke, many listened. Below are a few of his words of wisdom, and my take on how we can use them wisely.

"It always seems impossible until it's done." How many times have you looked at a project — either business or personal — and thought you could never get it done? Not enough time, not enough resources, not enough support...and yet somehow you find a way to do it. Most people celebrate the big successes but overlook the little ones. Yet sometimes breaking big projects into little steps is exactly what you or your team needs to make the impossible possible. Don't wait until you cross the chasm to enjoy your successes. Celebrate the little victories too.

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again." It's a little hard to imagine judging Nelson Mandela given the magnitude of what he was able to overcome and accomplish, but the message is a good one. You can't succeed if you don't try...and the fact is that many of us are afraid to try because we are afraid to fail. Failing isn't a requisite for succeeding...but it sure can be helpful you when you're trying to anticipate all the things that could go wrong in any given situation. Think back to some of the greatest innovators of our generation. Take Steve Jobs, for example. He left Apple in the '80s because of a series of failures, only to come back and create some of the most revolutionary technologies our world has ever seen.

"Difficulties break some men but make others." Going hand in hand with the previous quote, some people are born to face hard situations and make something good come out of them. Are you one of those people? Could you be?

"Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front." A few years ago, I read Jim Collins book Good to Great and some of the things he wrote have stayed with me...including the idea that a good leader looks out the window when things are going well and in the mirror when they are not. To me, this quote is saying the same thing. If you respect and trust your team and give them the tools they need to succeed, the rest will fall into place. Trust and respect go a long way in building an empowered team that leads your company toward new horizons.

"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination." In the spirit of the season, this is just a good thing to remember. Companies aren't successful by themselves. It is the human element that makes them so. It goes without saying that you want your team to be intelligent and wise...but having a team that is kind and compassionate provides the personal touch that people need to feel connected and frankly loyal. Think Southwest Airlines...when you fly on one of their planes, don't their people just seem, well, fun? They make the experience of flying pleasant and often humorous, and their warmth and sincerity go a long way toward building loyalty.

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." One can only imagine how powerfully Nelson Mandela felt these words. Without a doubt, he left 27 years in prison to a new world...and yet so many things hadn't changed. Much of the same biases, judgments and attitudes still plagued the world. But the many things he brought with him out of prison, not the least of which was a forgiving heart, enabled him to break down barriers that no one else could penetrate. I visited Robben Island last year and saw the cell where Mandela spent several decades. It was a windy and cold day, which simply amplified the ominous feeling of being in that prison. It is humbling to imagine that even as a prisoner, Mandela commanded the respect of his guards and walked away to become one of the most beloved world leaders of our time. Was he perfect? I’m pretty sure that at least two of his three wives would say he was not, but few people can say that they aren't touched by the thought-provoking and inspiring leadership lessons that he left for posterity.

Sarah Holliman, Vice President of Marketing, SIG