What Nelson Mandela Learned About Leadership in Prison

Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, South Africa
Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, South Africa

In 1999, shortly before Thanksgiving, I flew to South Africa to attend the third Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town. You may wonder why I would choose to do such a thing. Why would I travel thousands of miles away to talk with people from other religions? As a person interested in living out my faith, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that religious intolerance is the number one challenge to peace and harmony in the world. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If we cannot live together, we will die together.” Part of that trip involved a pilgrimage to Robben Island Prison which had been Nelson Mandela’s home for over three decades of his life. It was a moving experience.

While prison for some is loss of freedom and thought. However, to Mandela and many other social revolutionaries throughout history, prison was a place for profound thinking and great personal development.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote this week about what Mandela came to learn about leadership in that dreaded South African prison on Robben Island; a place he was sentenced to live for the rest of his life.


“I believe that Nelson Mandela was the greatest political leader of the 20th century — because of his 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Visiting Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island was the most emotional moment of my visit to South Africa this past summer. How could such a small place so change the world?

“I found this quote by Mandela when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on my last day in South Africa. It’s about how ‘the cell’ drove him much deeper into his interior life. I think his words are a good reflection for us as we choose our elected leaders next week:

“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

Nelson Mandela re-visiting his cell on Robben Island after his election as President of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela re-visiting his cell on Robben Island after his election as President of South Africa.
  1.   “Know yourself…. Leaders are often being told to “be who they need you to be,” and seldom are they invited to go deeper into themselves.
  2. “External accomplishments. Leaders’ lives are dominated by exteriority — both in putting yourself and your ideas out there and by the feedback you get in return. That’s natural for leading in the public sphere, but it can lead to defining yourself entirely by the outward life — what you think and what people think of you — to the great and dangerous neglect of the inward life. And that easily deteriorates into deciding what you think by what others think or want from you
  3. “Internal accomplishments. Because exteriority is so dominant for leaders, their interiority can be hard to find. It took jail for Mandela to force the journey to the interior life and define his success by what he could accomplish internally. Both external demands and lack of time are key factors here. Most leaders struggle to find even a little time for quiet space, moments of reflection, or the spiritual disciplines that take our lives to deeper places
  4. “Honesty. What works is more valued by many leaders than what’s right. Being honest, especially with oneself, is so hard to do when the demand to be successful is such a daily requirement. Telling the truth — and more importantly, living truthfully — is the moral foundation for genuine leadership
  5. “Sincerity. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say makes for the kind of leaders that so many are hungry for these days…. Deciding what you believe or think, then acting upon that in ways that are very transparent to the people around you, creates necessary transparency in society rather than the insincerity and opacity we have come to expect.
  6. “Simplicity. The systems we’ve constructed are so complicated, so it’s easy to lose how simple, direct, and clear true leadership is. Simplicity is not shallowness. On the contrary, being simple means cutting through all the distractions and complexities of life to get to the heart of the matter, the plain truths we need to tell, and the clear choices we have to make. Good leaders understand the depth of the problems we have to solve but keep their purposes, goals, and directions both simple and clear.
  7. “Humility. This is absolutely the hardest thing for leaders of all kinds. It’s so easy to listen to those warm and excessive introductions before you speak, or to enjoy audience responses too much, or to believe your press clippings. Instead, we need to always be aware of our human limitations, moral shortcomings, and how much we really do need the people around us — especially those closest to us
  8. “Generosity. How much we give, not how much we get, should be the test of leadership. There are far too many perks, privileges, and prerogatives for leaders today. The essence of leadership, from a moral and religious perspective, is essentially service — to our neighbors and to the world… How generous are we with our time, energy, gifts, and resources to all the people and needs that surround us, and how does our generosity create the new opportunities that people are so hungry for?
  9. “Variety. We live in a world that loves to offer us a continuous variety of things and experiences to accumulate, all of which command our time and attention. And leaders are offered the most variety of life’s attractions, stealing our focus from the things in most need of our attention. Leaders mush push away all of the ‘stuff’ that preoccupies them in order to really lead.
  10. “Look into yourself. That is the continual pilgrimage that leaders most need, and whether we continue that journey will determine the quality of our leadership. Interiority must undergird our exteriority. Internal accomplishments must shape the external ones. We saw that in how Mandela was always ready to challenge his allies as well as his adversaries, doing what he thought was right instead of what was easy or attractive, going deeper instead of just going along…”

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. To read the entire article CLICK HERE.

To read more about Mandela, CLICK HERE.

To read his autobiography, CLICK HERE.


Having read and seen Mandela’s biographies which describe his movement from revolutionary activist to leader of his country, he, like many outstanding leaders, had a life-changing event — prison for the rest of his life. It was during his imprisonment that he was able to transform himself. His was a true transformation. Mandela was raised as the son of a chieftain, college educated, and a powerful lawyer. He had advantage in his heritage, education, and rhetorical ability. He flirted with terrorism. But in prison little of that mattered. For nearly three decades Mandela honed what he came to see as the true aspects of leadership — “honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity.” Mandela learned to look into himself in the confines of his cell and, most importantly, he acted on what was revealed to him. [Note: “Cells” are not only in prisons; many of the world’s religious leaders came from a “cell” experience — of being alone to think about who they are, and what they believed.]

This is all very familiar to me as I recounted in my book. After eight years of struggle in Madison, I had a crisis. I was able to take a leave of absence and, during that time, started to find myself. While I am not a Nelson Mandela, and did not spend time in prison, I had the opportunity to do some “cell-like” reflection and self-examination.

Unfortunately, few leaders take that opportunity. They are simply too busy. But I have periodically gone on retreat; took time to slow down, be introspective, and examine myself. While it may not be the confines of a prison cell, getting away from the busy-ness of day-to-day work and time to “look into yourself” is essential for every leader who wants to truly be successful.

As leaders, we will find that when we work on improving our selves, we are, in fact, improving our ability to lead.

Improving our leadership skills is improving ourselves — and our relationships with others.

It, therefore, is worth our effort!