by Mwangi Githahu


To honour the late Nelson Mandela’s birthday, we looked back to see the influence the great man had on top business leaders


The strength of great leadership lies in a leader’s self-confidence and ability to recognise their own limitations along with an awareness of the need to build a team with complementary skills.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was an icon and a charismatic leader who exercised a style of quiet leadership without being boastful or flamboyant and who never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning.

In his own words, “The leader’s first task is to create a vision. His second is to create a following to help him implement the vision and to manage the process through effective teams. The people being led know where they are going because the leader has communicated the vision and his followers have bought into the goal he has set as well as the process of getting there.”

Every year on 18 July (Madiba’s birthday) the UN asks individuals around the world to make a difference in their communities and to take action and inspire change.

According to the Nelson Mandela foundation, “Nelson Mandela International Day was launched in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s birthday on 18 July 2009 via unanimous decision of the UN General Assembly.

“It was inspired by a call Nelson Mandela made a year earlier, for the next generation to take on the burden of leadership in addressing the world’s social injustices when he said that ‘it is in your hands now’.”

“It is more than a celebration of Madiba’s life and legacy; it is a global movement to honour his life’s work and to change the world for the better.”

Both at home and abroad, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders capable of inspiring other leaders to explore leadership, to discuss the challenges and opportunities that exist and to determine how they could help build a more hopeful future for all.

At the time Mandela came to power, South Africa had become increasingly isolated because of international opposition to apartheid, and the international icon is credited with having encouraged business to embrace ubuntu or "humaneness" and to see itself as part of a team effort to overhaul the country.

Other world icons looked up to Mandela as a result of his inspiring leadership qualities. One such icon was the legendary boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali, himself renowned for his legendary charm, wit and steadfast allegiance to his principles.

Ali wrote of Mandela that he is “my hero because he embraces all people like brothers and sisters. He is one of the greatest civil rights leaders in world history. Mandela is my hero because his spirit cannot be crushed. Imprisoned for his political views in the early 1960s, Mandela refused to compromise his position, which was equality and justice for all people.

“He sacrificed his own freedom for the self-determination of all South Africans. He is courageous and uncompromising. Mandela has always inspired me to think beyond myself, to think of people in the wider world as part of a common humanity. I am blessed by his friendship. I love him for what he has accomplished, for what he has been through, for his journey forward. He remains a hallmark of what it really means to give of oneself selflessly--which is, indeed, a gift for us all.”

Following a Meeting With African Leaders in March 2013, then-US president Barack Obama spoke to reporters on the subject of leadership and said “When you think of a single individual that embodies the kind of leadership qualities that I think we all aspire to, the first name that comes up is Nelson Mandela.”

While sportsmen (Mandela in his younger days had been a keen boxer) and fellow politicians all idolised Mandela, he had a special place in the hearts of business leaders—both South African and foreign. One analyst suggested that this was because of his contribution to creating a positive investment environment and reintroducing South Africa and its local firms back onto the world stage post-1994.

Back in 1996 when he was still president of South Africa, Mandela told Parliament that a shared vision between business and government was key to creating the socioeconomic development the country needed.

Some business leaders shared their thoughts on Mandela with the world in messages sent after he died in December 2013, but others spoke of him while he was still alive. The quotes below are taken from a wide range of sources.

“I met with Nelson Mandela a few months after he was released from prison in 1990. We became friends after that. He is a remarkable man and today is a special day. I don’t know anyone else who could have brought about such a peaceful and financially sound transition. The most amazing thing about him was that he stepped down after just one term.” - Sol Kerzner, speaking on Mandela Day 2013.

“Nelson Mandela devoted his life to building a more just, equal, and compassionate world. We are all better for it.” - Michael Bloomberg, American businessman, author, politician, and philanthropist.

“Every time Melinda and I met Nelson Mandela, we left more inspired than ever. His grace and courage changed the world.” - Bill Gates, philanthropist and entrepreneur.

“One of the greatest leaders of our time... a pillar of strength and source of inspiration." - Sim Tshabalala and Ben Kruger, joint Chief Executives of Standard Bank Group

"Nelson Mandela was a unique person‚ and a role model for every leader in the world‚ particularly his humility‚ his grace‚ his strength and his love for his people.” - FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana

“He was an exceptional leader‚ one who was willing to die for what he believed in. His name will always be associated with the concept of ethical leadership‚ applied consistently‚ regardless of personal sacrifice.” - Sipho Maseko, Chief Executive Officer of Telkom SA Limited

“History will recognise him as a giant among men; as an iconic leader who fought throughout his life not only for equality‚ but for the basic human rights of all." - Mark Cutifani, Australian businessman and the current chief executive of diversified mining group, Anglo American

"Nelson Mandela was a man of great moral and strategic vision who committed his life to leading the struggle to end apartheid.”

“Mandela stood in the pantheon of political leaders. He was blessed with an extraordinary ability‚ intelligence and memory‚ but it was his character that sets him head and shoulders above other leaders,” - Prof Ian Goldin‚ director of Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School.

“A leader becomes a centre of attraction and a rallying point of his people. Through his unwavering dedication, and his love of the people, Madiba the magnet, attracts the entire world to the example of his leadership.” - Tokyo Sexwale, South African businessman, politician, anti-apartheid activist and former political prisoner.

“Nelson Mandela’s global statesmanship made him one of the most revered leaders the world has known. His attention to all he met, combined with his ability to listen and to understand those on the other side, were just a few of the reasons that so many people in the world today have been influenced by Nelson Mandela, including some who were his former adversaries.” - Nicola Newton-King CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange Limited.

“Being flexible in finding a new door every time the last one slams shut is the difference between those who find their way and those who self-destruct. That's the kind of grit and creativity you need to be an entrepreneur," - businessman Richard Branson (referring to Mandela’s quote: "Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.")

“Mastery of self was probably the most remarkable aspect of Mandela’s leadership. Instead of simply languishing in prison, he used the time to think deeply and muster his inner strength. He studied, contemplated his future course and the future course of his nation, and clarified his vision for South Africa.” - Willie Pietersen international businessman and author.

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