Nelson Mandela was Strategic: What can you learn from him?

In 2013, we bid adieu to one of the most incredible leaders of our time: Nelson Mandela. It was one of the few celebrity deaths that actually gave me pause. In 1994, when I was young and living on an unfiltered, ungoverned, information-​dense internet, he was the one leader who made me realise how beautiful real wisdom truly is.

It is in this vein, therefore, that I present to you some key pieces of wisdom from Mandela. But I’m going to relate them to content strategy, because that’s what I do. And it’s also because Mandela was one of the most forward-​thinking, political strategists that has graced the world in recent times.

Before I get into it, allow me a moment of indulgence to thank Mandela for being a visionary. He taught me, when I was barely into my teens, what actual wisdom is. And me, all the way over in privileged, white Australia, growing up believing that anybody can achieve anything. Requiescat in pace.

In January 1994, Nelson Mandela made a speech to the ANC National Conference on reconstruction and strategy. In May of that year, he was elected President of South Africa for the first time.

There are two key parts of that speech that are of importance to people generally; but they are of vital importance to those looking at their content strategies. Here is that small section:

Our election victory in April will enable us to take a great leap forward.

But this will be a dangerous leap unless we have the vision, the programmatic
framework, the strength and the will to bring about fundamental change.

To achieve this requires that we read every sign with great attention, to
plan for every eventuality, to learn the hard lessons of history, to know our
country and to understand the social forces that make it what it is. (Source.)

In the same way, working at a strategic level in a business that is established — and taking it seriously — is also taking a dangerous leap. You need to have a framework in which to do it; and you need the strength and the will to disrupt your trajectory and make core changes. You have to have the ability to help all of your partners (your founder or CEO, your colleagues, your team, your Board and investors) understand what you are doing and why. You need the strength and the will to do it even in the face of resistance to change.

It also requires you to read and understand every sign and metric. You need to think about all possible roads and destinations. You need to acknowledge, listen to, and learn from the hard lessons of your immediate and distant past (even if it shames you). And you have to really understand your business, and the society (and market) that makes it what it is.

It’s one thing to have a vision statement. It’s quite another to live and work your vision, and have it underpinned by ‘moral’ principles. If your messaging is kind of dyed the same colour, but isn’t made of the same fabric, then you are going to have trouble achieving your vision in the long-​term.

The above snippet is an almost perfect rendering of how to create a dynamic, visionary content strategy. It’s one way of creating that long-​form thinking that will enable you to ride difficult waters into the distant future.

Mandela said, 'But this will be a dangerous leap unless we have the vision, the programmatic framework, the strength and the will to bring about fundamental change. ' He speaks to all agents of change. Including content strategists and CEOs
Nelson Mandela speaks to change agents everywhere.

In July 2013, Knowledge @ Wharton looked at Mandela from the perspective of a strategic leader. The author, Paul J H Schoemaker talked through ‘three decisions that illustrate Mandela’s leadership’.

It’s a fascinating read, and I encourage you to go make yourself familiar with it. As a business leader, you will find it of value.

But of more import to my article are the underpinning notions of Mandela’s leadership, and how those notions informed his strategic direction.

In engaging in the work of content strategy — and in introducing it as a secondary level of strategic planning in your business, there are key takeaways from Mandela’s leadership and decision-​making.

As best as I can distil them down from Schoemaker’s excellent work, here they are:

  • Hold firm to a morally just vision
  • Think about strategic decisions making impact not just now, and not just this year, but even decades into the future
  • Be patient, and wait for your decisions and changes to start to make their marks
  • When you make decisions, they need to serve the bigger picture: not just what you want to achieve right now. They also need to serve your vision, and the personality and principles that underpin your business
  • Encourage people to choose the correct path, in terms of vision, and long-​term goals, when faced with a decision — even when they are conflicted with significant emotion that urges them to react
  • Encourage harmony — and for your business, this means in all of your messaging, tones, channels, and silos
  • Forgive poor decisions you’ve made, regardless of what they are: but never forget them. This will keep steering you in the right direction.

And finally, this:

… above all … adjusting that strategy when necessary to maintain broad support…

This means, if your people challenge you, and can support their challenge, don’t stick to your plan through sheer pigheadedness. Your strategy needs to work with your people and your business, not against them.

For your edification, I will replicate Schoemaker’s summary of Mandela as a ‘transformational leader’. When you read it, think about it from the perspective of your business, and how you are driving your messages. Hopefully you’ll see the value much as I do.

  • Unwavering commitment to a long-​term vision of justice and hope
  • Not escalating violence and only answering in kind when no other options remained
  • Acting with dignity toward those who wronged him, including his jailers
  • Taking the long view on urgent decisions while remaining firm to principle
  • Moving alone when necessary, but without betraying his friends and party
  • Articulating compelling arguments that eventually persuaded his opponents
  • Showing sensitivity to the dilemmas of adversaries, with some yielding as needed
  • Appreciating the power of symbols and public gestures of genuine magnanimity
  • Ability to forgive in order to be free from feelings of revenge and victimhood
  • Weaving key decisions over time into an evolving tapestry of equality and freedom
  • Placing reconciliation with those who opposed his struggle at the top of his agenda.


I would love to hear what you think. Please leave your comments below.

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