Nelson Mandela’s Top 5 Leadership Messages

Great leaders, like Nelson Mandela, are associated with great leadership messages.

This is no coincidence.

Vivid messages help position people as great leaders. Gandhi, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, Steve Waugh, Bill Clinton, Richard Branson and Janine Allis are leadership examples of this.

FILE PHOTO OF PRESIDENT MANDELA.This article focuses on Nelson Mandela who led South Africa from apartheid to democracy – after he spent 27 years in jail as a political prisoner!

The first Mandela-related leadership message I became aware of was the incredibly catchy song from 1984 that helped his release from prison… Here’s that amazing story.

Nelson Mandela’s leadership example started in angry protest, but he grew into a humble, eloquent and inspirational figure who advocated peace, democracy and human rights.

He was released from prison in 1990, joined negotiations to abolish apartheid and to establish multi-racial elections, and was elected President of South Africa in 1994.

Nelson Mandela was an incredibly effective leader. Here are some of his leadership messages that mobilised a movement and made him an inspiration to millions. (I just love number 2).

Leadership Message No.5:

Mandela jail“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Mandela continued: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Why is this message so powerful? Because he was asking people to join him in a fight against those with the guns and all the power. He knew they were scared. He used this message to seek support for his cause (even from jail).

He gave them this inspirational message: if you’re afraid; it’s normal, you’re still a brave person. What you need to do next is to conquer that fear by taking action.

This line is the result of a powerful technique for persuasion. I call it the “You might be thinking…” technique. By anticipating an audience’s questions, you address the concern or question in their mind. You then go past this question to the answer.

This connects with people on a deep level. Firstly, it builds trust because people see that you understand their view. And secondly it clears the objection and makes new space in their mind for your message.


Leadership Message No.4:

Mandela world cup“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”

He continues: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

When you think about it, you know this is true. This leadership message shakes up your thinking and gives you a fresh way to view a situation.

This is a long message, more like an explanation, but it says so much. Like all great leaders,  Nelson Mandela was able to change the viewpoint of his listeners in just a few words.


Leadership Message No. 3:

mandela fist stadium“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

This message was the next natural step for Mandela to sustain support from his followers. In leadership message number 5, we see him gaining support for his cause by asking for bravery.

Leadership message number 4 is about acceptance and tolerance towards the opposition.

In this leadership message, Nelson Mandela teaches people the importance of being resilient even when they feel weary. He tells them this is what offers the greatest glory.

(Below, in leadership message number 2, he asks the people not to retaliate with violence after they win their struggle).

A key role of any leader is to keep people motivated and inspired even when things don’t go to plan. A leader reminds people that failures and setbacks are part of life. However, the real leadership example is in getting back up despite setbacks and to keep pursuing the cause.


Leadership Message No.2:

Mandela DeClerk“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Boom. It says so much in so few words.

Nelson Mandela was inspired by Gandhi’s leadership example of non-violent change. When Mandela was elected as President of South Africa in 1994 he encouraged his supporters to forgive their former oppressors, rather than fight back with violence.

Why? It wasn’t only about doing the ‘right thing’. With this brilliant, short yet powerful message, he showed that resentment and retribution won’t help them.

He basically said: ‘Don’t get even, don’t pay them back because it won’t help you. It won’t make you feel better. It won’t help you build a better society for your children. It will only corrupt you’.

What followed was three years of transformation, reconciliation and forgiveness that finally ended apartheid in South Africa. During this time, another message Nelson Mandela shared was, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Not only does this message guide us in the right direction, it just makes sense. And that’s why we respect the leader.


Leadership Message No.1:

46664 Concert: In Celebration Of Nelson Mandela's Life - Performance“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Here is the end of one chapter and the start of another.

Apartheid is abolished, free elections are held. Yet there are still great challenges in South Africa. Mandela’s last reminder is that education, not violence, is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world .

Nelson Mandela said this when launching a satellite education channel in South Africa in 2003. He explained that South Africa had inherited a dysfunctional educational system from the apartheid era and that education was the key to building positive change and opportunity.

This is one of the most widely quoted messages of our time because it resonates with so many people. It’s another great example of the transferrable vivid message.


Bonus Message:

Mandela explaining“Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.”

I added this because most leadership philosophies talk deeply about vision. They say that vision must come first, and I agree with this. However Mandela takes this a step further by reminding us not only to take action, but importantly to do it in the right direction!

In Mandela’s case, his vision was non-violent change and it was the non-violent actions that supported the vision that helped him to succeed.

It’s something that leaders can learn from because you’ve got to get the balance between vision and action right to stay on track.



Nelson Mandela is a global leadership example. Not only did he lead South Africa through massive challenges, he set an example of inspirational leadership that continues to inspire and motivate. It’s a wonderful legacy.


Want to be a great speaker? Get the kindle ebook from What’s Your Message? Public Speaking with Twice the Impact, Using Half the Effort




  1. Chris A Jaison says:

    Nelson Mandela was one of the most influential person ever..whenever i read his quotes i get goosebumps and a strange yet relieving sense of satisfaction.

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