Management & Leadership

The qualities that made Nelson Mandela a great leader

Sep 22, 2017
Nelson Mandela

Culture seems to have dictated that great leaders must be extroverts, but as Nelson Mandela’s example so admirably demonstrates, introverts can be the greatest leaders of all.

When we think of leaders, we typically think of people with charisma, booming voices and big, strong personalities. Since forever, culture seems to have dictated that great leaders must be extroverts who are able to not only sell their companies, policies or principles, but also to sell themselves. However, as the late Nelson Mandela so admirably proved, the quiet introspection often associated with them is the very thing that can make introverts the best leaders of all.

A leader listens

In his famous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela, recalling a time when he was nine years old, draws a clear contrast between himself and his closest companion, a boy named Justice, the son of a local tribal chief: “Justice and I became friends, though we were opposites in many ways – he was extroverted, I was introverted; he was lighthearted, I was serious”.

Mandela’s picture of himself as an introvert would appear to have been well founded. In recounting his time at Healdtown College in the Eastern Cape, he says: “I enjoyed the discipline and solitariness of long-distance running, which allowed me to escape from the hurly-burly of school life.”

And later, as a young law clerk in Johannesburg, he explains how his early involvement with the ANC was slow and deliberate: “I went as an observer, not a participant, for I do not think that I ever spoke. I wanted to understand the issues under discussion, evaluate the arguments, see the calibre of the men involved”.

A leader observes

Such allusions to his disciplined, observant and solitary disposition will resonate with students studying theories of personality, particularly those familiar with Carl Jung’s theories, which are among a range of theoretical frameworks used in the study of personality  taught as part of SACAP’s Bachelor of Psychology and Bachelor of Applied Social Science degrees.

Indeed, Mandela’s responses to events in his life appear to fit seamlessly with the Swiss psychoanalyst’s four famous dichotomous classifications for personality: introversion or extraversion, intuition or sensing, feeling or thinking, and judging or perceiving. Mandela’s personality clearly leans towards the introverted-intuitive-feeling-judging classification, also referred to as an INFJ, one of the 16 personalities identified on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), an assessment model, based on Jung’s theories that was developed in the 1940s.

According to the model, INFJs are typically credited with having an innate ability to understand the feelings of others and have a strong interest in people and society, in helping others and making the world a better place. They tend to be excellent listeners and are good at interacting with those with whom they are emotionally close and connected… all descriptions, most would agree, that wholly embody the country’s former president.

Introverts, like Mandela, have the capacity to make the best leaders, says Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, because they are more perceptive to their own shortcomings and so tend to compensate for these through “preparation and practice, and by pushing themselves.” Indeed, Mandela bears this out when, in the aforementioned autobiography, he openly declares: “I could compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline. I applied this in everything I did.”

A leader knows when to lead, and when to be led

Ever the introvert, Mandela also saw the wisdom in “leading from behind”. According to editor Richard Stengel who worked with him on Long Walk to Freedom, “Mandela loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. ‘You know,’ he would say, ‘You can only lead them from behind.’ He would then raise his eyebrows to make sure I got the analogy.

As a boy, claims Stengel, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him: “When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. ‘Don’t enter the debate too early,’ he used to say… The trick of leadership is allowing yourself to be led too. ‘It is wise,’ he said, ‘to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.’

Of course, how much of Mandela’s success as a leader can be attributed to his personality type is impossible to quantify. But it’s hard not to admit that the behaviours underpinning his success could very well have been predisposed by the fact that, despite his gregarious manner and that dazzling, beatific, all-inclusive smile, Madiba was really an introvert at heart.

Do you see yourself as a future leader, or as someone who can help others hone their own leadership qualities? Either way, you may wish to pursue career in coaching, where the purpose is to help others unlock their own potential. SACAP offers a range of coaching courses, including the Postgraduate Diploma in Coaching and the Coach Practitioner Programme. For more information, enquire now.

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