Remembering Nelson Mandela and his Six Life Lessons

The world truly lost a legend yesterday. Nelson Mandela was a champion of principle. He fought for what he believed in and left a legacy for the entire world.

Life lessons from Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela became a voice for the voiceless and, in doing so, won their hearts. That is the stuff of legends. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

Last night, as the news broke of Nelson Mandela’s death, I tweeted:

How is it that a man in his position could rise to worldwide prominence? How is it that hundreds of years from now, people will use the words “modern-day Nelson Mandela” to describe another man or woman? And how can we leave a legacy like he has?

Odds are that none of us will ever go through what Mandela went through in his life. He spent 27 years in prison, often in conditions so dreary and dark that it led to him developing a case of tuberculosis shortly before his release in 1990. And yet we can all learn six powerful traits from him.


The Six Most Powerful Traits of Nelson Mandela


1. He stood up for what he believed in.

He knew the consequences when he spoke out against apartheid in the 50’s and 60’s. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. in this country, in South Africa persecution was ever-present and arrest was imminent. But that did not stop him.

He became a voice for the voiceless and, in doing so, won their hearts. That is the stuff of legends.

2. He was persistent.

He was renowned for his stubbornness. I prefer to call it persistence. No man lives through what he lived through for 95 years without exceptional persistence.

He had a goal (the end of apartheid) and would stop at nothing until it was achieved. Even through the darkest days in a dingy, lonely cell, he kept that goal in sight. For 27 years behind bars.

There will be dark days for all of us. Hopefully not as dark as Mandela’s days in prison, but they will come. You will go through pain.

The question that determines whether you will be a legend or forgettable is: Will you keep your goal in sight through it all?

Those are two things you probably already knew. But it was the some of the lesser-known things that made him a legend.

3. He sought unity and reconciliation.

When he was elected President, the first thing he did was form a Government of National Unity in an attempt to defuse racial and ethnic tensions.

As he led the country from apartheid to a multi-racial government, he believed that unity and reconciliation should be his main focus. Previous post-colonial African nations were destroyed when white elites left the country, so he worked tirelessly to ensure they were represented in his government.

He could have easily done a victory dance and waved his finger at them. Instead, he invited them to the table with him. One of his first appointments, in fact, was the previous president, F.W. de Klerk, as Deputy President.

4. He looked for the best in everyone.

Mandela was known for looking for the best in people. He even went so far as to defend his political opponents to allies when they were misrepresented.

Some thought him too trusting of others, but I am sure that as he looked back on his life, he wouldn’t trade any of the betrayals for what he would have lost being less trustful.

I have to wonder if he lived by Anne Frank’s words from her famous diary:

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. (emphasis mine)

He chose to trust. And in doing so, gained all of the joy and freedom that comes from that.

5. He treated people as equals.

Although he eventually became known around the world and walked in the company of millionaires, billionaires, and celebrities, he often spent just as much time talking to their staffs.

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He treated everyone the same, famous or infamous, well-known or unknown. In doing so, he made everyone feel as if they were the only person in the room, much like Bill Clinton did.

6. He created an image.

Mandela was very conscious of his image. He had a greater purpose in life and his image played a role in that.

He was always seen in fine clothes, well kept, and carried himself in a certain way. It’s a way that is hard to describe in words. It was that powerful.

He was also a master of dealing with the press and incredibly skilled at producing pithy soundbites.

All of this was stuff that he worked at…hard.

If you want to craft an image and want to be a message-bearer, you have to put in the work. It rarely comes naturally.

The world may have lost a legend Thursday, but his legacy and these lessons from his life will live on forever.

As for you…will people years from now compare others to you and say that so-and-so is a “modern day-you?” What legacy that would be!

Question: Which of these traits do you believe was most beneficial to Nelson Mandela and why? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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15 thoughts on “Remembering Nelson Mandela and his Six Life Lessons

  1. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    Beautiful tribute. I would add he lived his life in confident, humility.

    • Agree wholeheartedly with that.

      He stayed on mission but was never bigger than his mission. I think that is the essence of confident humility.

  2. All great points, Matt. I’d say it’s hard to narrow it to just one trait which was most beneficial to him. I like #1, #4, and #5 especially from your list above. I think it’s cool that he continued to hope and to provide hope despite the obstacles he had to face.

    • You have to HAVE hope before you can provide hope to others. And without courage, it is impossible to encourage others.

  3. He could have given up. He was able to see past the hatred and he made his vision of a unified nation a reality.

    • And… I found this great quote “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”

      • Powerful.

        Reminds me of my favorite quote on unforgiveness. Not sure who it’s from:

        Unforgiveness says, “I’ll get you. I’ll kill me.”

  4. This is awesome and hard to answer that question at the end.

    Had such an amazing powerful mindset. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

    Great post Matt.

  5. Kirbie Earley says:

    I think not giving up on his goal until he achieved it. That is a lesson I am trying very hard to stick to myself right now.

    I’m a sociologist “by education”, and he is a true case to study! He, and a few others less well known, some still suffering similar plights, got their word out to millions, stayed true to themselves and either stuck it out or are still sticking it out in the light of horrible, inhumane conditions.

    It reminds me of when Mother Teresa died. My thought then was that not another person like her (or him) will ever grace us with their presence again. We were truly lucky to be witness to their greatness, giving spirit and honorable life.

    • I took a few sociology classes in college Kirbie…the rest is experiential 🙂

      Mother Teresa is a great example of someone who had no privilege but left a legacy.

  6. 3 and 4 are really important. When we’re able to unify people, we’re able to create strong forces. Like the bible says, a cord of three is not easily broken. As you add more, it becomes even harder. That’s the power of unity.

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