Was Nelson Mandela exceptional?

Posted on by Nancy Slessenger This entry was posted in Communication, Leaderhip skills, Leadership, Negotiation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


There were many things about Nelson Mandela that made him the man he was. I’m going to focus on just one, his communication skills.




One small example


During the divorce between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, there was a news report featuring Nelson Mandela leaving the courtroom pursued by the hounds of journalists. The microphones bristled aggressively around him and the journalists were all vying for quotes and responses. You will have seen many others respond to this kind of threatening and unpleasant behaviour. Nelson Mandela’s response was both surprising and astonishingly effective.


These are his words, from memory, probably not his exact words, but pretty close. The tone was quiet and kind.


Gentlemen, I’m sure you are all aware how difficult this situation is for my wife and me. I’d really appreciate it if you could let us deal with it on our own.



The crowd immediately fell back and all questions stopped.




Mandela vs. Machiavelli


Just before Nelson Mandela died there was an interesting documentary on the BBC about Machiavelli, who wrote “The Prince”.


Machiavelli wrote about how to attain and maintain power. He wrote on what he observed that he felt was effective. , He said that the best strategy for a leader was fear. To be loved as a leader is not a good strategy, because people can just stop loving you, but they will always fear you.




Your duty


Ruling by fear was not the strategy of Nelson Mandela. In listening to some of the countless responses to his death a few really stood out to me. One of those was concerned with his faults, saying that: “he was too willing to see the good in other people.”


Nelson Mandela said:

“Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings not because you think they are angels. Once you know this man has got this virtue and he has got this weakness, work with him and accommodate that weakness and help him to overcome that weakness.”


I think this was the bedrock of his exceptional communication skills and ability to negotiate with people who had been his enemies. Instead of condemning people for their weaknesses and failings he was able to work with them and to forgiven them.


If you can do that, it makes communicating with people much more effective.




The values come through the communication


Going back to that small example with the press I gave earlier, you can see these beliefs shining through. He addresses the journalists as “Gentlemen”. He sees the good in them. And he does not do anything aggressive, instead he asks for their help, which they happily give.




A harder path, but a better one


It’s much easier to use the strategies of Machiavelli. It’s easier to make people frightened of you and to blame them than it is to forgive them and understand them. It’s probably a quicker route to power. You will have seen examples of this behaviour where you work and in other walks of life.


But I also believe that forgiveness and helping others offers a much better long-term result.




Was Nelson Mandela exceptional?


Desmond Tutu said that Nelson Mandela was not exceptional, because we all have it in us to do these things. He had the ability to question himself and see where he had failed.


I think we can all see where we have failed, if we look hard enough and I’m sure we can all put bit more effort into forgiving others, accommodating them and helping them to overcome their weaknesses. Making a start probably isn’t that difficult.


Perhaps if we all did that the world would be a better place.


2 Responses to “Was Nelson Mandela exceptional?”

  1. December 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    I will like to share this on Facebook page but can’t seem to find the the option to.

    • December 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

      We’re delighted that you want to share this on Facebook. Although there is a “Like” button at the top of the page there isn’t a direct “share” button at the moment but there are 2 other ways;

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      Thanks for raising the question.

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