The Mindfulness of Nelson Mandela

September 4, 2014

mandela and mindfulness in leadership

Nelson Mandela liked tea.

Certainly he enjoyed the tea, the briskness of an afternoon cup. Or perhaps the fact that it was a habit of the English that he had learned while studying law at Oxford as a young man. Whatever his reasons, he used the ritual of afternoon tea as an extension of his warm and open personality, particularly when greeting guests. Tea, which he always insisted that he pour, also became a symbol of control.

When, after nearly decades of captivity, it became apparent that he would one day be released, the South African government decided that it must learn to deal with Mandela as a political force that one day might rule the country. For that reason, the prison authorities gave him his own house on the grounds of a mainland prison and when government officials came calling, Mandela played host. Even though he was a prisoner, he was the master of his house. He was its lord as well as the designated tea pourer. In this way, Mandela slowly, and not coyly, asserted himself as one who must be reckoned with.

World leaders come and go, but few have captured the imagination like Nelson Mandela. Born into royalty in his homeland, he assumed chiefly duties. Seeking wider influence, he soon ran smack into the vicious and oppressive apartheid system designed to keep black Africans, the overwhelming majority, in a state of subjugation.

As head of the African National Congress, Mandela was tried and sentenced to five years in prison in 1961. He was sent to Robben Island, a remote spit of rock in the Indian Ocean, four miles off the coast of Cape Town. Later when his papers were found in a distant farmhouse, Mandela (while still in prison) was tried on treason charges and sentenced to death. His death sentence was later commuted but the hardships endured. He pounded rocks in the blazing sun day after day, years upon end. It was mindfulness, as well as the cohesion of his comrades on Robben Island, that enabled him and his fellow prisoners to persevere.

While such treatment may have broken a lesser man, it only fueled Mandela’s conviction. On the plus side, he was surrounded by his brothers in arms, fellow members of the ANC. In time, he was hailed as the hero of the liberation movement in South Africa, which gained momentum during the years of his incarceration.

During this time, Mandela looked forward, and in doing so, learned the Afrikaaner language and culture of his jailers. He came to understand that unlike the English, who might re-emigrate to Britain or another commonwealth nation like Canada or Australia should blacks come to government, the Afrikaaners, decendants of Dutch famers who had emigrated to Southern Africa in the 17th century, were home. They referred to themselves as Africa’s White Tribe, and they were not going anywhere. Mandela understood this, and showed respect for their heritage when he supported the Springbok team when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

Only someone of Mandela’s sense of purpose could have shepherded a nation whose government was so virulently racist into a peaceful transition that facilitated reconciliation so that the country would survive.

There is myth around Mandela and on the one hand it’s glorious and fitting. Few men have ever endured such oppression and emerged so personally unscathed at least in a moral sense. He was kind, compassionate, and generous, but he was also steeled in his duty. He suffered losses in his family, and eventually in his marriages, but he remained true to his cause. [i]

Mandela exemplifies what it means to be mindful, aware of your situation, but at the same time, focused on what you can do to improve the situation. Many people saw the need for change in South Africa, but only a few activists were willing to take the risks involved to fight this uphill battle. Luckily, for most of us, the stakes are not as high, but we can all learn from his example. That is why mindfulness is something I explore in my work with executives.

Mindfulness gives individuals the perspective to take a step back and reflect on the situation. Things can be bad, of course, but from a leader’s perspective it falls on him or her to seek to make things better.

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Adapted from MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership Boston: Bibliomotion 2014

 Chapter 1

[i] Adapted from the following sources:

John Carlin Playing for the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation New York: Penguin Press 2008; Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Anthony Peckham starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon 2009

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About The Author

John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at N2Growth, is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and speaks throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. John is the author of more than a dozen books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership, Lead with Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. John’s books have been translated into 10 languages. In 2015 Trust Across America named him to its list of top 100 most trustworthy business experts for the second consecutive year. In 2014 listed John as a Top 50 leadership expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Also in 2014, Global Gurus ranked John No. 11 on its list of global leadership experts. John has authored more than 500 leadership columns for a variety of online publications including Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek. John’s leadership resource website is

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