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What Mandela taught me about leadership
August 20, 2015

Richard Stengel, in profile and smiling, looking at a smiling Nelson Mandela
While spending time researching a book, Richard Stengel (left) learned a lot from Nelson Mandela. (VOA)

For a couple of years in the early 1990s, Richard Stengel spent nearly every day with the late Nelson Mandela, collaborating on Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom. Now an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of State and author of a book titled Mandela’s Way, Stengel found himself recently in front of an audience of young Africans at the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit in Washington, D.C.

They had come to the U.S. to study leadership for several weeks at U.S. colleges and ended in Washington, where they met President Obama. It was here that Stengel shared lessons on leadership he had learned on the African continent from Mandela. Stengel had gleaned a lot from the man he — like many in South Africa — calls “Madiba.” The undersecretary said Madiba was a man who “wanted to disabuse people that he was a superhero, that he didn’t experience the same emotions as everybody else.” Here are three things he taught Stengel:

1. It’s okay to be afraid

Stengel recalled a time when Mandela was flying to Natal in a small airplane. “Madiba was reading a newspaper,” Stengel said. (Madiba loved newspapers, having been deprived of them for 27 years in prison.)

A bodyguard who had never flown told the pilot nervously that the propeller was not working. The pilot answered, “We know about this, and we’ve called ahead.” The pilot said the airport crew would put foam on the runway and station firetrucks nearby. “Most of the time it’s not a problem at all,” he said.

Mandela listened and went back to reading. But after landing, Mandela said, “Man, I was terrified,” and when Stengel registered surprise, Mandela said, “Richard, it would be irrational not to be afraid.”

“Courage is not the absence of fear,” Stengel said. “Courage is directing that fear.”

“Richard Stengel and two others look on as Nelson Mandela waves to someone not in the photo.
“It was an amazing experience,” Richard Stengel said about his time traveling with Nelson Mandela. (© AP Images)

2. It’s okay to be bitter

When speaking to Stengel, people often express amazement at Mandela’s lack of bitterness after being released from prison.

But Mandela was wounded and bitter about what happened to him, Stengel said. The leader diverted those feelings by focusing on a noble goal: “to create this multiracial, free, democratic South Africa.”

“He made incredible efforts. I think they were strategic too. … He came out of prison to have meetings with his old guards, and he would go back and see the old apartheid leaders of South Africa. He would say, so many times, ‘The past is the past. Forget about the past.’”

3. But be willing to step forward

Born in the remote part of Transkei, Mandela was the son of a village leader who was counsel to the tribal king. The father died of a heart attack when the son was just 12 years old, and afterward young Mandela was raised by the king alongside the king’s own son.

Mandela “listened to stories of African leadership from the 15th and 16th centuries — brave African kings before the era of colonialism. He was steeped in African leadership,” Stengel said.

That upbringing, Stengel said, informed what Mandela said about leading: “It’s simple. It is the willingness to lead … to step forward and say, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to do this.’”

Richard Stengel smiles as Washington Mandela Fellows surround him after his speech.
Stengel told his audience, all members of the Young African Leaders Initiative, that Mandela would be “so happy” to know they are preparing to meet the future challenges of the African continent. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)