5 Character Traits That Made Nelson Mandela an Effective Leader

Over the past twelve days, South Africans and people across the globe have mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela.  He is seen as the father of a country, an international advocate for human rights, and one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century.  It is also important to recognize that at different points in his life, Mandela was labeled a terrorist, communist, radical, or worse. I have identified five character traits (I am sure there are many more) that Mandela displayed that allowed him to be an effective leader.

1. Self-Awareness

Mandela could be, when necessary, an eloquent statesman, an articulate technocrat, or a humorous storyteller.  He knew which situations called for which role and he was self-aware enough to recognize how people were viewing him.  At the same time, he could put himself in their place too and feel as they felt.

2. Sense of humor

Humor disarms opponents, diffuses tense moments, and acts as a diversion.  Self-deprecating humor humanizes a person and shows a level of self-confidence.  Mandela regularly referred to himself as an old man and frequently shared a humorous story during speeches in which a young girl called him a “stupid old man”.  There is something special about people who are confident enough to laugh at themselves, especially when it is a larger-then-life figure like Mandela.

3. Humility

Effective leaders do not let their egos get in the way of accomplishing their mission.  When Mandela’s death became public, many people who knew him commented on how humble he was.  When meeting someone he frequently said: “It’s an honor to meet you.”  He never presented himself as being above or better than other people.  He also famously wrote in his memoir “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

4. Forgiveness

Mandela forgave those that imprisoned him for 27 years.  He invited a former guard to his inauguration and shared the Noble Peace prize with his predecessor, F.W. de Clerk.  His magnanimity won trust and set an example of how an entire nation could move forward.  Why was he so willing to forgive?  His answer- “Hating clouds the mind.”

5. Doggedness

Mandela was so tenacious and committed to his mission.  He sacrificed 27 years of his life in prison.  He faced critics from his own party and from international leaders.  Mandela was driven to accomplish his mission and never stopped moving towards the ultimate goal of liberating his country.

The biggest takeaway from Mandela’s amazing life and accomplishments, is that you do not need to liberate a country, become president, or win a Nobel Peace prize to adopt some of the character traits listed above.  These traits will help you be an effective leader at your place of work, school, and home.  Maybe we can all start 2014 by channeling a little bit of Mandela as we begin the New Year.