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Nelson Mandela’s leadership: born or made?

By Julian Barling

Retrospectively understanding the leadership of anyone who has achieved iconic status is made difficult because we ascribe to them our own needs, dreams, and fears. When we try and understand the leadership of Nelson Mandela, it’s natural to think that leadership must be something you are born to do. As but one example, organizational scholar Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed that “There are very few people in the world who could have done what he did. … He’s off the charts when it comes to leadership,” adding “I think Nelson Mandela … had to be a natural leader….I think you probably have to be born Mandela.”

But to believe that genetic factors alone explain Mandela’s leadership ignores the critical role of his early socialization —a common mistake among many biographers whose focus was on Mandela after he assumed leadership positions in the ANC in the 1950s. From scholars who gave serious attention to Mandela’s early life, one thing is clear: while most rural black children in South Africa lived lives of privation, this was not Mandela’s plight. Mandela led a life of relative privilege. He was a member of the royal family of the ruling Thembu clan, and after his father’s death when he was 10, Mandela was accepted by the family of the Regent of the Thembu.


Mandela attended elite schools, becoming a prefect in his elementary school—a position of considerable status, responsibility and authority, and then attended a prestigious secondary school. These extraordinary opportunities continued when Mandela enrolled at Fort Hare University in 1940, one of about 50 black Southern Africans who did so when few young black men would have even completed secondary school.

The influence of Fort Hare University in Mandela’s politicization and leadership development cannot be ignored. Presidents Kaunda of Zambia, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Nyerere of Tanzania, interim President of Uganda Lule, and Botswana Prime Minister Sir Seretse Khama all attended this university, as did many others who became leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (e.g. Chris Hani, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, Oliver Tambo), making clear how important attending Fort Hare University was for Mandela at such an impressionable time of his life.

When Mandela arrived in Johannesburg after leaving university, he met Walter Sisulu, an ANC stalwart, who became a lifelong mentor. Mandela served as an articled law clerk in Johannesburg in 1946 when the national census could identify only 18 African lawyers and 13 articled clerks. Through his encounters with the white community, he saw black and white role models interacting, watched Blacks challenge authority and did so himself.

Understanding Mandela’s extraordinary leadership thus requires that we go beyond any genetic influences and consider the roles of early adversity with his father’s death, a supportive family environment, leadership opportunities from elementary school onwards, and a rich political environment when he was most open to influence.

Julian Barling is the Borden Chair of Leadership and Queens Research Chair at the Queen’s School of Business. Barling is extensively involved in research, graduate teaching, and executive development focused on organizational leadership, and has received numerous awards for research and teaching. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, and is a Fellow of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Canadian Psychological Society. He is the author of The Science of Leadership published by Oxford University Press.

Image credit: Johannesburg, South Africa – February 13, 1990 : Former South African President Nelson Mandela, shows the freedom salute after his release from prison. © ruvanboshoff via iStockphoto.

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  1. […] the scheme of things, Nelson Mandela is considered a person who was born with natural leadership. However, he could not have achieved […]

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