July 18th is not only International Nelson Mandela Day, it also marks the centenary of his birth. In light of recent events, this is an appropriate moment in our history to pause and reflect on what true leadership looks like. For me personally, the example of Nelson Mandela reminds me of many of the qualities to which I aspire. Nelson Mandela

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on the occasion of Mandela's death, told "CBS This Morning" that the former South African president taught him many life lessons:

Humility. Have a purpose. Have a vision. Be prepared to sacrifice. Be prepared to listen to the other side." "And always be ready to change your mind, but never abandon your principals."

Of the many tributes paid to Mandela at the time, this was the one that struck me most deeply. And which remains with me today.

Fifteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks travelling around South Africa's Cape. I took a trip out to Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 out of his 27 years in jail. I was shown around by a former prisoner who explained in detail what life was like on the island. What struck me most powerfully was the intentional and systematic way in which the apartheid government had set about creating a brutal, humiliating and dehumanising regime, intended to break the spirits of its political prisoners. From the bleak cell, barely 6ft square where inmates lived with nothing but a bedroll on the floor, a tiny stool and a ceramic pot through to the racial discrimination that meant African prisoners were given shorts to wear and a poorer diet than their Asian or mixed-race (the  so-called “coloured”) counterparts.

But what really acted as a metaphor for the regime’s utter ruthlessness was the futile regime of hard labour in the island’s lime quarry, where day after day, political prisoners were forced to chisel out limestone only for it to be thrown away afterwards. Standing in the quarry myself, I was struck by the mental toughness Mandela displayed in the face of such futile activity. Although Mandela’s sight was damaged by the blinding glare of the sun on the quarry’s blanched walls, he remained unbroken. He wrote:

The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.”

My attention was drawn to a pile of stones which our guide told us was erected in the lime quarry by a gathering of former political prisoners and friends to honour Mandela's release from prison. Small and large, black and white, these stones are intended to symbolise what South Africans can be, irrespective of the different cultures they come from and languages they speak.

I learnt that Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu along with other political prisoners used their time in this quarry to teach each other literature, philosophy and political theory. This limestone quarry was in fact one of the great universities of the world! What a great irony.

I left Robben Island wondering how Mandela had developed the generosity and strength of spirit to emerge from these inhumane conditions to become an infinitely better and more measured person, capable of governing his country and leading its people towards peace? What particular leadership qualities had enabled Mandela to rise above the hate, fear, greed, and suspicion of apartheid, and use his authority as President to lead the people of South Africa towards reconciliation?

The quality I decided was magnanimity.

Magnanimity derives from the Latin root, magnanimitas - magnus, great, and animus, spirit, soul or mind. Webster’s dictionary defines magnanimity as

Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquillity and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.”

Mandela had remained angry for years. The turning point, Mandela said, took place in that limestone quarry. “I hated them for fourteen years,” Mandela told President Bill Clinton when he asked how he had let go of his anger and hatred. “And I am not sure, when I was young and strong, if I wasn’t kept alive on my hatred. But one day when I was breaking rocks I realised that they had taken so much from me. They had abused me physically; they had abused me emotionally; they had taken me away from my wife and children; I wouldn’t see my children grow up; eventually it would cost me my marriage. They’d taken everything away from me but my mind and my heart. And I realised that I would have to give those things to them – and I decided not to give them away.” Whilst Mandela would give up the armed struggle and violent revolution, he would not give away his heart and mind. Instead he found a way to protect them, and let them grow. Mandela came to understand that “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Here are just a few ways in which Mandela showed his magnanimity:

  • Having been denied their rights for so long, many expected Mandela to form a government that would assert the rights of the black community, but instead Mandela sought to move South Africa beyond racism towards a ‘rainbow nation.’
  • He formed a national unity government, appointing people of different races to cabinet, and asked FW de Klerk to serve as his vice-president.
  • He invited his white jailer as a VIP guest to his Presidential inauguration
  • His prosecutor in the Rivonia trial had been zealous in pushing for the death penalty but he invited him to lunch.
  • He invited the wives and widows of the Afrikaner political leaders to come to the president’s residence. When 94 year old Betsie Verwoerd was unable to come due to illness, Mandela went to have tea with her.
  • He reached out to the Afrikaners by using the symbol of the South African rugby team to stride on to the turf at the Rugby World Cup wearing his Springbok jersey.
  • When the Truth and Reconciliation Committee subpoenaed [former-president] PW Botha, Mandela sent word to him to say that if “you are feeling that they were somehow seeking to embarrass and humiliate you, then I, the president, will be ready to attend a session and sit side by side with you".
  • He was open about his mistakes; for example he apologised and tried to make up for not doing enough to address the HIV/AIDS crisis during his presidency. After he left office, much of his work focused on combating the disease e.g. establishing the non-profit organization 46664 and in 2005, announcing that his 54-year-old son Makgatho Mandela had died of an AIDS related illness.

So why is magnanimity such an important leadership quality? Quite simply because it distinguishes good, and even excellent leaders from those who are great and exceptional.  And this in turn leads to outstanding business performance. It’s that rare type of leader Jim Collins describes in his book ‘Good To Great’ of a Level 5 Executive, channelling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. So what are the hallmarks of the magnanimous leader in business? Well they:

  1. Teach and mentor rather than order, inspire and encourage rather than rebuke.
  2. Solicit the contributions of their team when solving problems.
  3. Are collegiate when making decisions.
  4. Admit their mistakes and take personal responsibility.
  5. Recognise the contribution of others.
  6. Advise and encourage, but don’t interfere without good reason.
  7. Delegate power.
  8. Deepen the commitment of the team to the company mission.
  9. Promote their organisation, rather than themselves.
  10. Identify, develop and nurture future leaders.

I hope one of my favourite quotes by Mandela will inspire you!

There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Join The Conversation

Question: What did you most admire about Nelson Mandela? Which other leaders and CEOs do you admire and respect for the quality of magnanimity? How can you develop this quality within yourself?

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About Denyse

Prior to becoming a business consultant and coach, I gained 25 years’ experience in business in senior management and leadership roles, including 8 years as a former CEO. This experience is backed up by training at Cranfield School of Management, the UK’s leading business school. With experience in business planning, financial management, risk management, building strategic partnerships, product development, marketing (including PR) plus leading and developing staff teams of up to 150 people, there’s very little I haven’t had to deal with or experienced during my career in business.

You can find out more about working with me HERE. Or alternatively email me on to arrange an informal chat over coffee. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching or business consultancy would be a good fit for your business, the results you can expect and how to get started.

Photo of Nelson Mandela courtesy of via flickr.