What can business leaders learn from Nelson Mandela's life?

Susie Parker
Digital Marketing Manager | Business West
13th December 2013

Through many hours spent in conversation with Nelson Mandela, author Richard Stengel wrote the inspirational book 'Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life, Love and Courage', and identified 15 points of wisdom that represent Mandela’s approach to his life.

Starting a lively discussion at Business West, we asked our directors and advisers their views on Mandela's legacy and what guiding principles entrepreneurs and business leaders could reflect on.

We captured a number of Mandela's key traits; attributes that undoubtedly helped to drive him in his cause to become one of history's most engaging and successful leaders, but characteristics that can also help to guide entrepreneurs and leaders in business to achieve their own success.


Mandela had a strong ethos and ethics, and maintained his integrity through the extreme challenges he faced. This reinforced his credibility and generated trust amongst his followers and individuals across the world, who believed in him as a person of genuine character.


Following a formal education, Mandela continued to educate himself, reading up and researching everything which kept him informed, knowledgeable and broad-minded.


Commitment, determination and consistency in what he believed in drove Mandela to have courage and take risks, to the extent of risking his own life and enduring imprisonment for 27 years, but ultimately achieving his goal.


Mandela had a gift for listening to and understanding people; he was interested and cared about individuals. He was approachable and enabled those he met to feel at ease. Often seen laughing and joking, he put smiles on the faces around him. These skills undoubtedly inspired loyalty and achieved engagement in the most difficult circumstances.


Mandela was consistently honest, maintaining the same view behind closed doors as he did face to face, strengthening his position as one of life's most admired leaders.

"There is a huge amount that business leaders can learn from Mandela's humility and style of leadership. He was living proof that leadership styles do not need to be loud and aggressive. More important to listen and understand the people you are leading and then work out from there how to get the best out of them," says Anne Compton, Business West's director for Gloucestershire Chamber of Commerce. "By all accounts, Mandela also retained his sense of fun - invaluable in the fast moving and stressful world of business today." she adds.

James Durie, director of the Initiative at Business West, neatly sums up how Mandela's legacy may resonate with business;

"Mandela showed through his life experience how taking a wider interest and responsibility for all citizens enabled him to be able to lead and overcome so many massive challenges through time, consistency and commitment to strong decent values. He wasn’t afraid to risk even his own life to achieve his goal. Good business can learn so much from holding to such strong values; being consistent, doggedly determined and not being afraid to take a risk."

Returning to Stengel's book and Mandela's 15 life lessons, we can further reflect on these and gain inspiration. Richard Branson revealed in a recent post that he had been profoundly inspired by the book, stating;

"I believe we all have the potential to learn new things and change for the better every day. I was 60 by the time I read "Mandela's Way" for the first time, but it has left a profound impression on my life."

In his book Stengel expands on each lesson and provides insight through examples of how Mandela applied these principles in his own life. These 15 life lessons include:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear

2. Be measured

3. Lead from the front

4. Look the part

5. Lead from the back

6. See the good in others

7. Keep your rivals close

8. Have a core principle

9. Know when to say no

10. Know your enemy

11. It’s always both

12. Love makes the difference

13. It’s a long game

14. Quitting is leading too

15. Find your own garden

What are your views on Mandela's legacy, and what can we learn from his inspiring approach to his life and work?

Bristol online book of condolence opened following the death of Nelson Mandela

Bristol has launched an online book of condolence in response to the death of Nelson Mandela at www.bristol.gov.uk/mandela.

Do you want to join the conversation?

Sign up here