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Entrepreneurial Lessons from Giants: Nelson Mandela

Updated on April 6, 2020
Nnanyelugo Ike-muonso profile image

Nnanyelugo is passionate about the discovery of traits in extraordinary people for adaptation by entrepreneurs desirous of success.

Photo of Nelson Mandela | 1918-2013



Nelson Mandela was an extraordinarily selfless freedom fighter who never flinched in the pursuit of those ideals. He gained global admiration as well as earned the Nobel Prize for peace. He equally became the first democratically elected (and the first black) president of his home country South Africa. What are those qualities that set him apart from the crowd that entrepreneurs can adopt to succeed much? I have identified and discussed nine of them.

Mandela's nine lessons for entrepreneurial success

Mandela’s self-discipline and unmatched drive to achieve political freedom for the people of South Africa can be summarised in the following nine lessons:

  • Eyes fixed on the ball
  • The sacrifice of self
  • Two wrongs never make a right
  • Cherishing and nurturing the foundational values of freedom and fairness
  • Diverse capabilities and multiple talents
  • Continuously improving on previous achievements
  • Working hard with perseverance
  • Selling desperately hard
  • Negotiating with body, mind and soul

Eyes fixed on the ball

Fantastic football players and goalkeepers appreciate the great rewards that come by setting their eyes on the ball. Nelson Mandela, like other extraordinary giants, applied this principle focusing 100% of his energy on his goal. He avoided and deflected unneeded distractions. In the same way, that successful business persons "follow the money", Mandela followed the purpose of securing freedom and liberty for his people. For instance, he bluntly rejected the distractions of conditional release from imprisonment at least three times. He preferred instead to be in prison until the realisation of complete freedom for all South Africans. One of his famous quotes is his dock remarks after being sentenced to die in 1964. According to him "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am ready to die."

The sacrifice of self

By voluntarily accepting to save twenty-seven years of hard labour in prison for the sake of South African freedom, Nelson Mandela practically sacrificed a substantial part of his life for his people. This sacrifice came with several benefits. The first benefit was the acceptance and support by his people, who became convinced that he was genuinely crusading for their freedom. It further reinforced trust on his side of the story to the international community and gained additional support. Entrepreneurs who lead by example are more likely to elicit buy-in from their members than those who do not. Entrepreneurial leaders ought to demonstrate a reasonable level of sacrifice in other to gain substantial levels of commitment and ownership from the staff.

Two wrongs never make a right

Despite great provocations, torture, humiliation and dehumanisation, Nelson Mandela did not descend to repaying racism with the same. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. Even when he eventually had the opportunity to pay back the white supremacists in their own coins, he never did so. On the contrary, he unwaveringly committed to democracy, equality, freedom and constitutional rights. Many businesses have failed because of subterranean retaliations in offices. A great business leader manages conflicts based on clearly communicated and accepted principles and policies for human relations administration.

Cherishing and nurturing the foundational values of freedom and fairness

Nelson Mandela's father became a local chief and councillor to the monarch when he replaced his predecessor accused of corruption. But his father was also removed from office because he was standing up against the magistrates unreasonable demands. The young Mandela learned to stand up against unreasonableness and unfairness from his father. According to him, "he inherited his father's 'proud rebelliousness' and 'stubborn sense of fairness'". Fairness, justice and equity are foundational principles for creating level playing grounds for competition. He recognised that he needed to fully imbibe and strengthen those foundational values if he was to make a success of his aspiration. Great entrepreneurs and institutions always navigate to success using the compass of core values which reinforces the prevailing culture of the organisation. Without consciously nurturing and preserving them, the organisation loses its compass and fail.

Possession of diverse capabilities

Mandela worked very hard to acquire various skills and competencies outside of his core areas of focus. He took up ballroom dancing, performed in the drama society as well as give Bible lessons in the local community. As part of his efforts for the struggle, he received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962. The more knowledge, skills and experiences that an entrepreneur acquires the better the likelihood of discovering new business opportunities. There are also underlying attitudes and aptitude gained in the process which become highly invaluable to the success of the business in varieties of other ways and engagements. Undoubtedly, it played out in Mandela's struggles in later years. For example, his ability to stand and convince large audiences must have gained roots in his early days of performances on stages as well as community evangelism.

Improving upon previous achievements

As a rule, never leave a situation that is generating excellent results the way you found it. Improve on it. Nelson Mandela did not give up on the efforts of his ancestors in the struggle for freedom. He learned from the stories of the bravery of his ancestors in resisting the white man's oppression. Those stories fired him up to make his contributions to the struggle. He did. He awakened a new generation of South Africans to commit to the struggle for freedom, equality and constitutional rights. Through his efforts, the African National Congress became more radical and more mass-focused in its programs and activities. Continuous improvement with eyes fixed on the ball with always result in great success.

Working hard with perseverance

This characteristic is pretty apparent and runs through the entire life of Nelson Mandela. He worked seriously hard. He was only able to achieve the level of education that he eventually attained because of hard work. Even though Fort Hare authorities expelled him, he never gave up on his determination to be very well educated. It was while he was in the dreaded Robben island when he already contracted tuberculosis, that Nelson Mandela braved it all and still obtained a bachelors degree in law through a University of London correspondence program. Excellent entrepreneurs are convinced about their goal and therefore work extremely hard to attain the visualised end.

Selling desperately hard

A good entrepreneur must devote considerable time and energy to selling his or her goods and services. Even while he was facing treason trials, Nelson Mandela sneaked out of South Africa under a cover name of David Motsamayi to sell his ideas and the justification for the struggle to the world. He travelled around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. By so doing, he attracted substantial attention around the globe, which strengthened the pressure on the South African government at the time.

Negotiating with the body, mind and soul

The entirety of Nelson Mandela's life was that of negotiation. In summary, he negotiated the freedom of South Africans with his life and liberty. He accepted to die rather than not achieve his dream. Even when he was out of prison, he continued to urge the countries of the world to sustain their pressure on the governments of South Africa. Upon his release, he also negotiated with President de Klerk on the conduct of what became country' s multiracial election as well as the sharing of power. He maintained a delicate balance with his mastery of negotiation. Every good entrepreneur knows that the quality of business negotiation positively correlates with the attained performance.


In summary, Nelson Mandela left a great package that is rich in self-discipline for aspiring and mature entrepreneurs. In much the same way as he succeeded eventually, those who discipline themselves and apply these principles in their lives will most likely end up with similar or even better results.


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