Nelson Mandela's Genius as a Leader

The power of persuasion and negotiation


With his decision to join forces with the national rugby team to bring together a deeply divided nation, Nelson Mandela sealed his legacy devoted to healing the wounds of the past, ushering in a new, democratic era. His skill is an inspiration for business leaders of how to use the power of persuasion and negotiation to turn around a sclerotic, conservative, internally divided and failing corporate culture.

With change comes resistance, something leaders can overcome with an astute strategy and a crystal-clear idea of objectives to accompany a grand vision. IESE Prof. Paddy Miller and John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, reflected upon this and other useful leadership lessons during the plenary on “Leadership Innovation,” part of the Fast Forward executive education program at IESE Barcelona.

Among the lessons for leaders are:

Deal with your enemies. Sometimes these may be people and factions within your own camp.

Use the power of symbols. The Springbok team name, jersey and colors, as well as the national anthem, were sources of pain for some, pride for others. Ditching them would have ended up alienating a critical sector of his constituency - the ones who possessed the necessary skills and who held the purse strings. Mandela shrewdly opted to retain them, incorporating them into his grand new national project. He transformed these symbols of division into instruments of reconciliation and nation-building.

To change minds, win hearts. If you really want to change people's minds, address their hearts, Mandela told Carlin. Appeal to their core values, their pride, their sense of identity - and their vanity, too. Always do so respectfully. This is the most effective and lasting way to overcome deep-seated prejudices and entrenched positions.

Form alliances. Sometimes you may have to do this with your enemies or rivals, winning them over to your cause by zeroing in on shared self-interests.

Negotiate and be inclusive. Some leaders may feel that the only way to bring about radical change is through force. Mandela renounced that path, and his leadership was all the stronger for it. Mandela realized that the best way to achieve his strategic vision was not through imposing his will on others, but by persuasion, negotiation and inclusivity. That is ultimately what wins hearts and minds.