Nelson Mandela and His Leadership Style: By Jennifer Ripka

Nelson Mandela, considered by many as a revolutionary leader, helped organize the fight against racism and apartheid in South Africa. (Brink, 1998). Mandela witnessed leadership at a young age when observing his guardian supervising tribal decision-making gatherings. Mandela’s guardian listened in silence for days, never voicing his opinion even after everyone’s opinion was heard. After everyone had spoken, his guardian guided the group to reach a consensus. Later, Mandela used this experience to mold his leadership style (Stengel, 1994).

According to Stengel (1994), Mandela recalled the following lesson regarding leadership from when he was a young cattle herder:

"When you want to get a herd to move in a certain direction," he said, "you stand at the back with a stick. Then a few of the more energetic cattle move to the front and the rest of the cattle follow. You are really guiding them from behind." He paused before saying with a smile, "That is how a leader should do his work" (p.1).

Mandela began displaying his ability to organize and lead others by helping to create the Youth League of African National Congress (ANCYL) which organized protests, boycotts, petitions, and strikes to end apartheid. Previously the African Nation Congress (ACN), ANCYL’s parent organization, had petitioned the government for years for equality with little success. However, with increased success of the movement, the government increased violence toward nonviolent protesters and banned the ANC. Mandela and other leaders in the movement had to decide how to respond. In a risky decision, they concluded that nonviolence would no longer be effective and that the ANC needed to continue underground. These actions resulted in the imprisonment of Mandela and many ANC leaders, but this action helped to inspire others and to prepare the country for change (Hall, 2006).

After more than twenty years in prison, Mandela decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. He realized that, as a leader, it was time to take a drastic step, and he met with the South African president in order to discuss his release and his desire to switch the nation to a democracy. Mandela was successful, and upon his release he was elected the first democratic leader of South Africa (Brink, 1998).

Throughout his battle against apartheid and helping to bring democracy to South Africa, Mandela adopted a democratic leadership style. According to Johnson and Johnson (2006), “Democratic leaders set policies through group discussion and decision, encouraging and helping group members to interact, requesting the cooperation of others” (p. 182).

Mandela believed in the value of the democratic process, even thought he did not always initially agree with the result. Some of his unsuccessful pursuits included when he tried during his imprisonment to have prisoners addressed more respectfully by guards, and later when he attempted to have the national voting age lowered to 14 (Stengel, 1994).

Mandela’s leadership success can be attributed to his use of consensus. Consensus is considered to be the superior decision making process to build commitment and motivation in group members towards group objectives. Using consensus aids in making the best possible decision and utilizes the resources of everyone involved  (Johnson & Johnson, 2006).

In conclusion, Nelson Mandela is viewed as a revolutionary leader for his ability to empower and motivate others using his strong regard for consensus and the democratic process.


Brink, A. (1998). Nelson Mandela. Retrieved May 31, 2007, from

Hall, C. (2006). Mandela, the revolutionary. Faces. Peterborough, 22 (6).

Retrieved May 31, 2007, from

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F.P. (2006). Joining together group theory and group skills (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson  Education, Inc.

Stengel, R. (1994). The making of a leader. Retrieved May 31, 2007, from