As I write this, Nel­son Man­dela is in frail health but still with us. No, let me cor­rect that, Nel­son Man­dela will always be with us.

Rather than try to sum­marise the achieve­ments of this stel­lar leader, here are some key links for you. I’ll then share how Pres­i­dent Man­dela affect­ed my own life and sense of lead­er­ship.

If you want to learn more about Man­de­la’s life: has an excel­lent short biog­ra­phy.

Nel­son has many links, videos and obser­va­tions about his achieve­ments.

The Nel­son Man­dela Cen­tre of Mem­o­ry has a time­line of his life.

The Inde­pen­dent pub­lished the text of Nel­son Man­de­la’s speech when he was sworn in as pres­i­dent of South Africa in 1994.

Nelson MandelaIn 1990, while liv­ing in Boston, I attend­ed a mass ral­ly on the tree-lined Esplanade on the banks of the Charles Riv­er. I was there to hear Nel­son Man­dela speak, or even just to be near him and show my respect. His vis­it to Boston was well cov­ered by the press, and you can see a slide show of his con­nect­ing with major politi­cians and oth­ers here; you can also get a real feel for the night by read­ing Bri­an Hecht’s report in The Har­vard Crim­son, from which I quote:

Man­de­la’s speech came late in the day — two hours behind sched­ule — after a long after­noon of speech­es and song. And while the ANC leader was mak­ing stops in Rox­bury and at the JFK Library, the crowd at the Esplanade’s Hatch Shell slow­ly grew [to 250,000], some­times impa­tient­ly but always expect­ing some­thing great.

One woman in a striped red shirt pushed her way through the seem­ing­ly unpen­e­tra­ble crowd with a small child on her shoul­der. “It’s not for me,” she plead­ed with the dis­placed observers. “I just want my son to see Nel­son.”

And although many cursed the long wait, every­one was on a first name basis with Nel­son. “If Nel­son could wait 27 years,” the pre­vail­ing wis­dom whis­pered, “we can wait a few more hours.”

I can tell you that I recall that night and his speech vivid­ly today. It was that pow­er­ful.

Years lat­er, in 2006, I trav­elled to South Africa for the first time — a busi­ness trip to do some lead­er­ship devel­op­ment work with one of the glob­al min­ing com­pa­nies with a pres­ence there. I man­aged to carve out a lit­tle down­time and arranged for a guid­ed tour of Sowe­to, where I was able to vis­it many of the loca­tions impor­tant to the anti-apartheid move­ment. (The Guardian just pub­lished a won­der­ful pic­to­r­i­al report on “What Nel­son Man­dela means to the peo­ple of Sowe­to”.)

On that tour, I was able to expe­ri­ence the vibrant spir­it of the town­ship and learn more about its her­itage. One of the high­lights of this vis­it was strolling down one of South Africa’s most famous streets — the only one in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize win­ners, Pres­i­dent Man­dela and Desmond Tutu. One can­not help but be move by such great­ness, with the two homes with­in a few hun­dred metres of one anoth­er. Pres­i­dent Man­de­la’s house is open to the pub­lic and pro­vides you with a glimpse of his life at one par­tic­u­lar moment in time.

Years lat­er, I saw the movie, Invic­tus. The moment when Man­dela, wear­ing the team colours of the Spring­bok (which were a pow­er­ful sym­bol of Apartheid ZA), pre­sent­ed the Rug­by World Cup tro­phy to the team’s cap­tain on the world stage still stands, to my mind, as one of the great­est lead­er­ship moments in my life­time giv­en its humil­i­ty, sym­bol­ism and its trans­for­ma­tion­al impact on South Africa and the rest of the world.

While I could write many posts about my own high esti­mates of Nel­son Man­dela as a leader (his deter­mi­na­tion weld­ed to a soar­ing vision, his pref­er­ence for change via a peace­ful (if pos­si­ble) process, his aspi­ra­tion for unal­loyed free­dom for all), I was touched by the com­ments of oth­ers on in this regard. For exam­ple, one con­trib­u­tor, iden­ti­fied only as “Ene”, said: “He showed love for the peo­ple, the coun­try, and fought for their free­dom. Clear­ly it was­n’t con­ve­nient, but it was a task he took on hap­pi­ly no mat­ter the pain he suf­fered.”

The body of Nel­son Man­dela may have fall­en into irrepara­ble poor health. But the spir­it of the man will endure as long as peo­ple admire true lead­er­ship for its pow­er to both improve soci­ety and inspire peo­ple to make their own lives bet­ter.

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