Global Leadership Blog

The Legacy of Transformation: Lessons in Leadership from Nelson Mandela

When people are determined, they can overcome anything.” – Nelson Mandela

With Nelson Mandela’s death this month, a global spotlight has been shining on his cultural legacy. Some voices have focused on his role in ending Apartheid in 1994, while others have revisited the ensuing changes of South Africa – the growing economy, the country’s rising profile as a tourist destination and the spread of global investments. Yet while many are celebrating Mandela’s unique and nuanced brand of wisdom, few have applied his lessons toward our ever-evolving business landscape.

If you’ve watched South Africa’s national journey, then you’re no doubt familiar with the country’s values of “reconciliation” and “transformation” – key guideposts lighting South Africa’s path to transformation. Politicians, citizens, academics and business leaders are committed to shaping an environment of forgiveness and cooperation; of becoming a prosperous and peaceful country where differences are resolved in favor of fruitful collaboration and constructive long-term interests.

If you’re asking what that has to do with business dealings, the answer is quite a bit. South Africa today is not only an emerging market but an economic and cultural mirror of Mandela’s legacy. As such, it offers important lessons for businesses all over the globe that want to make a positive impact on the world.

Consider three of Mandela’s lessons in leadership.

Purposeful Work

When I visited Nelson Mandela’s former prison, one part that made a deep impact on me was the rock quarry. He and other prisoners worked here all day in the heat, breaking rocks with their bare hands – even though the rocks were later thrown out. It was brutal, senseless work, and stood in direct opposition to the passion and purpose that Mandela embodied.

It’s worth asking today, regardless of occupation, country or background: what are we accomplishing? How can we ensure our work has purpose and creates value in the world? Meaningful work is not just for the idealistic; all over the world, companies and leaders are infusing their corporate missions with lasting and practical value. Leading the charge are Millenials, who have been vocal in their interest in working for companies that are making a difference.

Moving Forward

One of Mandela’s most admired traits was his ability to forgive. Rather than holding onto anger and the divisions caused therein, he actively sought to embrace the future and foster the opportunities possible with reconciliation. This generous resolve is one of South Africa’s most defining features – and a reason the country has become such a rapid growth market. While severe poverty still exists, the economic outlook has improved dramatically for both townships and cities. Africans from all over the continent come to South Africa for employment, while the nation has become a magnet for foreign investment.

Why has the country experienced such a swift upswing? There’s less competition there when it comes to multinationals, which means higher ROI for many investors. There’s also a high demand for new products and services; South African telecom companies have added over 300 million subscribers over the last years. It’s no surprise that companies like Volkswagen, SAP, Cisco, General Electric and BMW have all found success there. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa members are Fortune 500 companies. By looking to the future, South Africa has catalyzed its own radical economic growth.

Social Responsibility

Sometimes buzz words become so popular that people fail to consider their deeper meaning. This is certainly true of social responsibility, and the ways we must honor the communities we invest in.

South Africa is a country like no other. With eleven official languages, multiple ethnic groups and rapid social change, the nation’s labor force and market conditions present a rich and rare opportunity. Africa as a continent is transforming itself to be a serious economic player, with many countries newly interested in entering that playing field. Yet to establish successful business connections, these international corporations must be committed to Africa as societal whole.

That means understanding the interrelationship between politics, business initiatives and social justice; it also means building relationships that show support and consideration of how a company’s investment impacts a community. Cultural awareness and diversity training, mentorship programs and initiatives that celebrate and honor the local culture are all vital elements in thriving global businesses. One example: SAP, the German software giant, created technology labs to help local children learn to use computers and prepare them for success in an increasingly digital world.

Nelson Mandela has left us, but his legacy of peaceful transformation lives on. Whether your business is seeking global expansion or simply to make a positive impact on its customers’ and employees’ lives, his lessons are worth remembering.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication.
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