Are leaders born or made?  It’s an old question.  In Mandela’s case, his leadership and his style was entirely created by him through his life experiences.  In fact, this is so much true, that in the story of his inner life by Edward Stengel, Mandela’s Way, over the period of his imprisonment,
he changed his character and personality.  How about that!  Many people don’t believe “personality” can be changed, and yet Mandela’s story is one of about that depth and quality of that kind of change.

Stengel says that the years he spent in prison “became a crucible that both hardened him and burned away all that was extraneous.”  Prison taught him the very qualities and traits that he later considered essential to leadership- self-control, discipline, and focus.  “It taught him how to be a full human being.” (p. 14).  Prior to all of that, young Nelson Mandela was “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.”  So said his law partner, Oliver Tambo, who later because the head of the ANC.

Yet, “The Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison is none of those things.” (p. 15).  The man who came out and that we all came to know was balanced, measured, and controlled.  How did that transformation take place?  Stengel writes that in prison as a prisoner: “The one thing you could control-that you had to control-was yourself. There was no room for outbursts or self-indulgence or lack of discipline.” 

Of course, not every prisoner then or now develops self-control from that experience.  Many become bitter, hateful, resentful, and still unable to control their reactions.  Not so Mandela, he learned.  He learned and changed and through his experience, matured.  “I came out mature” was his own self-description (p. 17).  He did that by taking the time that he had in prison- 
“… to think and plan and refine, and then refine some more.  For twenty-seven years, he pondered not only policy, but how to behave, how to be a leader, how to be a man.” (p. 16)

So while prison breaks many, Mandela used prison as a crucible to steel himself, develop himself, and to become mature.  In modeling Mandela as a leader -this gives us an inside look at what a great leader does.  A great leader never stops growing as a person.  And when tragedy occurs, a great leader uses it as a crucible.

In the chapter Be Measured, Stengel describes many incidents of calm control in Mandela.  One story that demonstrated it was the murder of Mandela’s own rival for leadership in the ANC, Chris Hani.  This happened after his release and while he was preparing to run for president.  One day Hani was assassinated and that event could have very easily have tipped the nation into a civil war.  That evening, F.W. de Klerk, the state president was not the person who went on national television to calm the nation.  Mandela did that.  And in his speech he paced, paced, paced the thinking- feeling of the nation and then called he for calmness by putting forth his vision for the

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being.  A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.  A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world.  Our grief and anger is tearing us apart.  What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions of people across the political and colour divide.”

He ended his speech with a call for a higher vision: “This is a watershed moment for all of us.  Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, our grief, and our outrage to move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country- an elected government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (p. 49) 

Stengel says that Mandela used the word discipline repeatedly in the speech and that “His measured response to this crisis was a large part of the reason that South Africa did not plunge into civil war.”  In my readings of biographies of great leaders the discipline of self-control shows up repeatedly and consistently.  And no wonder, if a leader cannot lead him or herself, how could the leader lead others?  Self-leadership comes first.  It has to.  And at the heart of self-leadership is the quality of discipline. Like other qualities of one’s person- this too can be developed and learned.

Generally we think of a person’s temperament and personality as a stable quality that we are born with, our “type” of personality that doesn’t change.  Of course, we do not view things this way in NLP and Neuro-Semantics (see The Structure of Personality: Personality Ordering and
Disordering 2001).  In Mandela’s case, he changed his very personality as he formed and tempered his temperament.  He qualified it through his experiences and so came out of prison a very different man.

What can we model from Mandela’s leadership?  What inner qualities did he demonstrate that would make for greater and higher leadership today? 

His continuous learning and developing.  He kept learning and adjusting and did not settle into a hard or rigid approach to things. He worked on himself.  He demonstrated what we call self-leadership in Neuro-Semantics and engaged in so much personal change that he changed his very personality.

He became highly reflective as he used the time he had to become more measured and disciplined so that he leadership was much more “on purpose” as a leader.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.