Nelson Mandela Leadership Style: Idol of the Leadership, Equality & Democracy

Nelson Mandela leadership style inspired millions of people around the globe. Mandela (born Rolihlahla Mandela; 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician who served as the first president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. His leadership style is an inspiration for millions and became an idol of leadership, equality, and democracy. He is one of the 12 great leaders who affected our lives in the last 25 years. We have explored Mandela’s leadership style in this article.

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Why Nelson Mandela is an Important Figure in Leadership History?

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (born Rolihlahla Mandela; 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician who served as the first president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

Mandela fought for equality and democracy in his country. While he was trying to serve his people, he was against the powerful colonizers and he had to put his life and interests at risk while fighting for his people. That is why he takes place in great leaders lists many times and he has a unique Nelson Mandela leadership style that inspires millions. Mandela says:

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

Nelson Mandela shows two types of leadership styles dominantly.

  1. Servant Leadership
  2. Transformational Leadership

His servant leadership traits and fighting against the colonizers became an inspiration for many of the leaders after him. Mandela is known as one of the transformational leaders as well. Now, let’s go with Mandela’s two fundamental leadership styles.

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Nelson Mandela Leadership Style #1 – Servant Leadership

The first and most known Nelson Mandela leadership style is servant leadership. Servant leadership term was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in his “The Servant as a Leader” essay. Since its inception, servant leadership has been an inspiring and powerful leadership style used by many leaders to affect their followers.

As a servant leader, you’re a “servant first” – before thinking of yourself, you focus on the needs of others, especially team members. You are aware of other people’s self-interests, give them the assistance they need to meet their business and personal goals, include them in decisions where appropriate, and build a sense of community within your team. This results in higher engagement, more integrity, and better relationships with team members and other stakeholders. It can also lead to increased innovation.

In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Nelson Mandela leadership style was showing the traits of servant leadership. Instead of his wills, interests, and future, he fought for the equality and democracy of his people. Many times, he put his life at risk for the future and benefit of other people. These are inspirational and iconic in the leadership history and he definitely deserves to be on top of the servant leaders.

Watch the Servant Leader YouTube Video

We have a 10-minute Servant Leadership video on YouTube. You can watch it to learn more about Servant Leadership.

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10 Common Traits of Nelson Mandela as a Servant Leader

Servant leaders demonstrate various leadership skills. However, some skills outshine more than others. Nelson Mandela leadership style demonstrates the following 10 servant leadership skills.

  1. Active-Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasiveness
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Team Building

Nelson Mandela was using each of these skills actively to encourage their followers and motivate millions to reach their common goal: equality and democracy in South Africa.

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Nelson Mandela Leadership Style #2 – Transformational Leadership

The second type of Nelson Mandela leadership style shows the characteristics of transformational leadership. Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns defined transformational leadership as a process where “leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.” Since then, the transformational leadership style has become a phenomenal leadership style that is tried to be achieved by many leaders. Several leadership experts evolved the concept over the years.

Watch the Transformational Leadership – 5 Steps to Become a Transformational Leader video

We’ve listed the 5 steps to becoming a transformational leader in our following YouTube video.

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8 Common Traits of Nelson Mandela as a Transformational Leader

There are several traits of a transformational leader. We’ve listed the 8 common traits of Nelson Mandela below.

1- Is a model of integrity and fairness:

Transformational leaders follow the rules and ethical standards. They are fair and at equal distance to all members of the group. Their actions are taken as a role model by others. Mandela fought for equality and democracy for several years.

2- Sets clear goals: 

Transformational leadership requires setting clear goals for everyone. Mandela’s vision was clear, a free, equal, and democratic country and he steered the people around him to reach this goal and fought for this for several years.

3- Has high expectations:

Transformational leaders are givers, so they have higher expectations than other leaders. For many, what Mandela achieved was a dream that would have never happened. However, his high expectations and unique Nelson Mandela leadership style helped him and his followers to reach utopic goals.

4- Encourages others:

Instead of setting goals and targets, Nelson Mandela leadership style involves encouraging others to ensure goals are met. Encouraging people can be done in different ways through promotion, incentives, activities, or sometimes even a verbal appreciation can stimulate the energy of individuals. As a social activist, Mandela was using his charismatic leadership and motivational speeches to encourage people.

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5- Provides support and recognition:

Transformational leaders provide the needed support by the team. Nelson Mandela was an excellent support to his team and followers. Support can be in many ways. Recognition is acknowledging the success of individuals in your group. If anyone is performing better than expected, or if the all group succeeded in a milestone, these should be celebrated and incentivized if possible. Recognition is crucial in transformational leadership and Nelson Mandela leadership style is well known for acknowledging the success of people and groups.

6- Stirs the emotions of people:

People are not in the same mood every day. And, peoples’ moods affect their performance directly. Transformational leaders are experts in stirring the emotions of people to achieve maximum performance in the workplace. The morale and motivation of the people were at their worst levels in South Africa, before democracy. Nelson Mandela leadership style stirred the emotions of the people to work for the same goal: equality and democracy.

7- Gets people to look beyond their self-interest: 

Selfishness is in human nature. People think of their self-interest in the first place among other things. Nelson Mandela as a transformational leader ensures that people look beyond their self-interest and achieve together as a team. In many cases, overall success brings much more than individual success.

8- Inspires people to reach for the improbable:

You should have heard the saying “difficult is done at once, the impossible takes a little longer”. We can tell that it is a motto for transformational leaders. They always expect their people to aim for improbable, and reach outstanding targets. When you look at the life of Mandela with several years of prison, segregation, and tough years, he never gave up and fought for the improbable. In the end, he reached the improbable target.


Nelson Mandela leadership style is an idol and inspiration for leadership history. Even though he suffered from several bad events, was put behind bars for 27 years, and sacrificed many of his followers, he never gave up on his goal: equality and democracy in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela leadership style turned a segregated country ruled by white minorities into an equal and democratic country. Globally regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice, Mandela received more than 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize. His leadership style demonstrated the traits of two fundamental approaches: servant leadership and transformational leadership.

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