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5 Lessons for Social Entrepreneurs from Nelson Mandela

by Micrograam

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As Nelson Mandela, 95, the iconic leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, battles a lung infection in a Pretoria hospital, the world is praying for his recovery. Mandela is no stranger to battle as he was imprisoned for over 27 years before going on to become South Africa’s first black President. 

Since walking out of Victor Verster Prison, he credits his experiences in confinement as his greatest teacher. They moulded him and taught him important lessons in leadership. Some of the lessons have been compiled into a book by TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel titled ‘Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage’, and a few of these are particularly relevant to social entrepreneurs today. 

Courage is not the absence of fear: In the book, Stengel writes, “Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. ‘Of course I was afraid!’ he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. ‘I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.’ But as a leader, you cannot let people know.” 

As a social entrepreneur, embarking on an ambitious initiative can be fraught with numerous questions of, “what if”. Courage is continuing to lead in the face of adversity and striking the right balance between idealism and practicality. 

Quitting is leading too: Sometimes, social entrepreneurs have to deal with a lot of uncertainty as there are often a number of aspects that are not in their control. Making tough decisions and knowing when to abandon an idea to optimize resources is one of them. “In many ways, Mandela’s greatest legacy as President of South Africa is the way he chose to leave it. When he was elected in 1994, Mandela probably could have pressed to be President for life…. He knows that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.” 

Have a core principle: Most entrepreneurs are driven by the cause they have chosen to champion, be it making solar lighting accessible to the poor, micro investment for rural empowerment or reducing carbon emissions. What takes them through the challenges and keeps them going is the desire to realize their goals. 

Find your own garden: Mandela kept a vegetable garden for some of the years spent in prison. In doing so, he was able to add fresh vegetables to the paltry diet of the prison inmates and also cultivate a sacred space for himself away from the harsh realities. While little is achieved without passion for a chosen cause, it is also important to have a pocket of calm to keep from being swallowed by work. 

It’s a long game: A social entrepreneur’s work is never done. “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” said Mandela himself. 

Nelson Mandela has been a global symbol of perseverance and hope for nearly half a century, whether in his role of political prisoner, elected leader or humanitarian and it would be wise to imbibe his hard-earned wisdom as we continue on our path of solving some of society’s most pressing problems.

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