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Nelson Mandela: the emotionally intelligent leader

Posted by Patricia Martin

Patricia Martin

Nelson Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson wrote that during Mandela’s 27 years in jail “he developed the art of politics: how to relate to all kinds of people, how to persuade and cajole, how to turn his warders into dependents and how to become master in his own prison”. Great leaders have great self-awareness and social awareness; they also know how to manage themselves and relationships to get the most out of others.

During Mandela’s time as a political prisoner, jailed for championing the anti-apartheid cause, he learned how to get the best out of himself and from others by simply being aware of and managing his behaviours and his impact on others. Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly seen as an iconic leader, and by understanding the behaviours he used during the most testing time of his life, we can gain some insight into how he matured to become one of the world’s most admired leaders.

When Mandela was sent to jail he already possessed qualities of self-awareness that helped him to accept the decision of the court instead of trying to fight it: “I was made by the law a criminal, not because of what I had done but because of what I stood for”.

Self-awareness is also knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and using this to understand others, enabling you to have a positive impact on people. This is at the core of leadership. Mandela knew that one of his strengths was holding him back – he knew he was not a criminal, and of all people, he had a passion for freedom. Being aware of this, and managing that passion to bear the long years of prison with such grace and composure, was and continues to be an inspiration to a generation, and those who came after. He was able to hold that passion for freedom in check to make prison more bearable in the beginning, and eventually, inspire those who were his captors.

Social awareness
Empathising with others at an individual and a group level is being socially aware. When Mandela was sent to Robben Island Prison in Cape Town, he remarked that “how you are treated in prison depends on your demeanour”. Mandela understood that he could not be just himself anymore, that he depended on others and therefore if he could engage with those people he could create better opportunities for a more bearable life. By keeping his emotions in check, he could start to listen to and understand his jailors.

Social awareness means understanding others in order to get the best out of them. Since Mandela was imprisoned for almost a third of his life, social awareness helped him to create a more constructive existence, and make the experience of prison count in his life. During this time he came to understand that “you mustn’t compromise your principles but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliated”: meaning that being aware of others and your impact on them is vital, an integral quality of great leadership.

Self- management
Mandela was aware that his existence in jail would be much worse alone, and that by influencing others and using them to help he could improve it, but to do this he had to manage himself. He said that: “we don’t have to be victims of our past, that we can let go of our bitterness and that all of us can achieve greatness.”

Exercising self-control and harnessing our drive to motivate ourselves is self-management. A lack of self-control has been found to be the main factor that stops high potential leaders achieving their full potential. By keeping his emotions in check despite his beliefs and experiences before and during his time in jail, he managed himself to the degree that he could understand his jailors and in time, build relationship with them.

Relationship management
This is the way in which a leader brings people together towards the greater good. It is at this moment that a leader truly matures, leaves themselves behind, and leads by getting the most out of other people. For Mandela, this allowed him to establish relationships with his jailors, they could disagree with him but nobody could question his integrity. Mandela made people feel bigger, and in achieving this he also rose as a leader.

Throughout his 27 years of captivity, Mandela managed himself in order to get the most out of others, and that was his goal in life. He knew himself and the impact he had on others and he understood what behaviours would help him the most. These are the qualities of a truly great leader.

These lessons and skills that Nelson Mandela learnt and refined in the humble environment of Robben Island were the same ones that he used to influence leaders at the pinnacle of world power. In the words of past president of the United States, Bill Clinton: “Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.

In reflecting on his life, Mandela said that “when a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace”.


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  1. Peeyush


    December 14, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Excellent article Patricia. Congratulations for writing it!

  2. Albert Chagula

    Albert Chagula

    December 16, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Absolutely correct! Mandela’s emotional intelligence was and is still unmatched by most of our modern leaders. He was truly a gifted person. May God grant him eternal peace. Amen!

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