Mandela’s Leadership: Born and Bred


Given his mythical status as a transformational leader, it is easy to see Nelson Mandela as a gift of nature. But his magic drew from a unique set of life experiences

Mandela’s Leadership: Born and Bred

The following is adapted from The Science of Leadership: Lessons From Research for Organizational Leaders, to be published in January 2014 (Oxford University Press). Pre-order the book here.


Commenting on the enormity of Nelson Mandela’s leadership, noted organizational scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed that, “There are very few people in the world who could have done what he did. I mean, 27 years in prison, and coming out and repairing a troubled nation and forgiving his enemies. He’s off the charts when it comes to leadership.”  In response to the question, “Are leaders born or made?” Kanter went further, saying, “I think Nelson Mandela in South Africa had to be a natural leader. . . I think you probably have to be born Mandela.” 

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is not alone in these beliefs. After meeting Mandela, Roy Anderson, an industrialist and CEO of several large companies in South Africa during the 1990s, observed that, “His charisma goes way beyond people respecting what he stands for and the sacrifices he has made,” adding his voice to the familiar refrain that this “must be something he was born with.”

But to believe that genetic factors alone can fully explain the emergence and development of Mandela’s leadership is to ignore the critical role that his early childhood socialization played in his later development — a common tendency among many biographers whose focus was primarily on Mandela after he ascended to leadership positions in the African National Congress (ANC) as a young man in the 1950s. In doing so, they cast no light on his early family life, his teenage years, or his experiences at university. Rather than accepting that his early socialization was irrelevant to his subsequent leadership, a closer examination suggests the opposite is closer to the truth. 

Nonetheless, understanding the influence of family and environmental factors in Mandela's early life on his later leadership is complicated by several factors. 

First, there is a reasonable fear that being able to understand any early influences might in some way minimize the magic of Mandela’s leadership. But there need be no such concerns: instead, understanding the roots of Mandela’s leadership will remind us of the pervasive importance of early family socialization and adverse experiences in the development of leadership (such as parental alcoholism in the case of Bill Clinton’s leadership, the early death of the father as in the cases of Mandela or Richard Nixon, or the early death of Eleanor Roosevelt’s father and four-year-old brother).  

Second, retrospectively understanding the leadership roots of anyone who has achieved iconic or mythical status is challenging because we ascribe our own needs, dreams, and fears onto the iconic leader, all of which complicates the search for an objective understanding. 

 “Nurture, rather than nature, is the primary molder of personality” — Nelson Mandela

From scholars who have given serious attention to Mandela’s early life, one thing is clear: While most rural Black children in South Africa lived lives of privation, this was not to be Mandela’s plight. From a very early age, Mandela led a life of relative privilege. Mandela’s father, Henry Gadla, was comfortable financially, at least relative to others in his community. Mandela was a member of the royal family of the ruling Thembu clan in the Transkei, and after his father’s death from tuberculosis when he was 10 years old, Mandela was accepted as a ward of the Regent of the Thembu, and a companion to the Regent’s son.

As a child, Mandela was afforded the unusual opportunity of attending elite Methodist elementary schools, where he was eventually made a prefect in his boarding school — a position of considerable status, responsibility, and authority. 

Mandela also attended Healdtown, a prestigious Wesleyan secondary school. Some six decades later, former school friends remembered him for his magnanimity. These extraordinary opportunities for a rural, Black person in South Africa became more pronounced upon graduation from high school, when Mandela enrolled at Fort Hare University, “one of an intake of around 50 black Southern Africans” in the year in which he enrolled. To understand what all this meant in South Africa in the early 1940s, recall that most young Black men grew up on farms or near cities, and precious few would have even completed secondary education.

Forged in a Dynamic Environment

It was at Fort Hare University that Mandela became politicized, meeting many of the people with whom he would subsequently be politically involved. The influence of Fort Hare University in Mandela’s leadership development becomes increasingly evident when we learn that this university was home to other African students who subsequently achieved the ultimate leadership positions in their own countries after independence from colonial power: Presidents Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Julius Nyere of Tanzania, interim President of Uganda Yusuf Lule, and Prime Minister of Botswana Sir Seretse Khama. Add to this the list of students who would subsequently become the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and it is clear that Mandela would have found himself in the midst of an extraordinarily dynamic environment at an especially impressionable time of his life.

The early political power of the regent was such that when Mandela later arrived in Johannesburg as a young man in the 1940s after leaving Fort Hare University, he immediately obtained a valued job working in the gold mines. He also met Walter Sisulu, who later became Secretary General and Deputy President of the ANC. By Mandela’s own admission, Sisulu had a profound influence on his development.

During the mid-1940s, Mandela served as an articled law clerk in Johannesburg before eventually qualifying as a lawyer at a time — in 1946 — when the South African census could identify only 18 African lawyers and 13 articled clerks. From a social perspective, Mandela’s early encounters with the White community were unusually positive, including with his employers and mentors, Lazar Sidelsky and Nat Bregman. In fact, from his school days onwards, Mandela had the unusual opportunity of observing both Black and White role models, including situations in which Black teachers defied White authority. 

Clearly then, Mandela’s early life was replete with situations in which he saw others challenge authority and did so himself, and he both witnessed and practiced leadership. Thus, we begin to see that Mandela’s subsequent leadership was likely a function of many different influences: genetic influences which should certainly not be discounted, early family adversity with the death of his father, a supportive family environment, early emergence as a leader in elementary school, and a rich political environment at a time when he was most amenable to political influence.