Applying for the Mandela Washington Fellowship: What is a ‘proven record of leadership’?

Hands forming heart shape in front of poster of Nelson Mandela (© AP Images)
One insight into Nelson Mandela’s leadership skills comes from his famous saying, “It’s always impossible until it’s done.” (© AP Images)

A 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow from Botswana described being a recipient of the fellowship named after the former South African president and initiated by the first African-American president as “mind-blowing.”

No doubt many 2018 MWF hopefuls share this sentiment as they finalize their applications (due by October 11!). They may also notice that the very first item on the list of selection criteria is “A proven record of leadership and accomplishment in public service, business and entrepreneurship, or civic engagement.”

In other words, the fellowship named for Nelson Mandela is not meant for people who are aspiring leaders, but who are already leaders in practice.

Balarabe Ismail, a 2016 Fellow from Nigeria, said, “Not many people can apply because some of the questions cannot be answered by somebody on the street. It has to be somebody doing something for society.”

How do you become a leader? It’s true that many became Fellows after having already founded and led a business, a nonprofit organization or another formal group. But that’s not a requirement. Neither is having a formal diploma or degree.

Here are two questions to consider:

  • What impact are you having in your community?
  • How are you changing the space you live or work in?

It could be that what you are doing in your neighborhood or religious or civic organization is providing an important community service, even if you hadn’t previously thought of it as “leadership.”

If you see there is a challenge in your community and you are actively doing something about it, you are a leader.

As 2016 Fellow Mwanga Simwanda from Zambia said: “Yes, we have a lot of problems, but what are you doing about it as a leader? They want somebody who has resolutions and not just a list of challenges. So that’s the key. What are you doing to solve the problems?”

How can you demonstrate that you are a leader in your application? Don’t be afraid to contact MWF alumni and those who are familiar with your work for advice. You can connect with them and find more helpful tips by becoming a YALI Network member and by following the YALI Network Facebook page or the YALI Network Face2Face group.

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