What Nelson Mandela Taught Us About Seeing the Bigger Picture

Today marks year 3 since we lost one of the greatest leaders to have ever walked the planet earth, Nelson Mandela. Affectionately known as Madiba which means father, he certainly served as a father figure for many across the globe. Personally, he was (and still remains) a big influence in my life. I have spent countless hours studying his leadership style and one thing always stood out to me. His ability to see the bigger picture. This for me, was his greatest strength as a global leader. Here are some examples of Mandela understanding the bigger picture:

He Found Freedom In Forgiveness

It’s no secret that Mandela spent 27 years in prison and just for context, I am 27 years old now and I can’t imagine spending that much time in close to solitary confinement like that. For many, being imprisoned for this long will implant seeds of bitterness and vengeance but Mandela chose to see the bigger picture upon his release.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” –Nelson Mandela

He showed the world what true forgiveness was like by fully forgiving his opponents even though he was now in a position of power over them.

Mandela used the four years after he left prison in 1990 and prior to the election to bring parties from different ethnic groups together. He created environments for open discussion among groups that had fought each other for years because he realized that the bigger picture here was unity and that if South Africa was ever going to be great, everyone needed to have a seat at the table.

This was evident in how he played a big role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was formed by the new South African government in 1995. Its goal was to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid. Its emphasis was on gathering evidence and uncovering information—from both victims and perpetrators—and not on prosecuting individuals for past crimes, which is how the commission mainly differed from the Nürnberg trials that prosecuted Nazis after World War II.

He helped bring together whites and blacks to help shape a better tomorrow. This is something we can all learn from. Don’t run away from what you don’t understand. Rather, seek to give everyone a voice and work out a solution from there.

One could say his 27 years in prison in a way saved him. It gave him time develop his leadership style as well as a new perspective. He became someone with a willingness to open his heart, mind and soul to the problems that existed around him. He allowed himself to develop a space for change and therefore better understanding.

“One of the most difficult things is not to change society but to change yourself.” -Nelson Mandela

He was focused on goals and a mission beyond himself: 

Even before Mandela went to prison, he had a deep sense of purpose and his purpose was not about him. Take a listen to his speech at the opening of his trial for sabotage in Pretoria on April 20, 1964.


“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal 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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This was something he continued to live by everyday until his death. For him the big picture was ensuring that true equality existed. His ability to understand his role in the grand scheme of things was remarkable. It didn’t matter what happened to him as long as his fellow countrymen and women got to experience better lives. He wanted to ensure that the next generation did not experience the hardships his generation went through and so he continued to fight.

He Knew How To Find Unity In Global Moments

Part of being a great leader is recognizing opportunities and Nelson Mandela did this often. Perhaps his most famous example of this was during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final when South Africa was playing against New Zealand. Up until that point, rugby in South Africa was a direct symbol of apartheid. It was a primarily white sport and many black South Africans actively rooted against the team.

However, Mandela saw things differently. To him, he saw the moment as an opportunity to bring the nation together. His advisors disagreed vehemently but alas, he walked on to that stage where millions all over the world watched him draped in the Springbok Jersey which had been the symbol of hatred for so many and walked out to South Africans of all races chanting: Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!. I talk about the moment and the other ways he was open minded in the video below:


Journalist and author John Carlin said,

“It was far, far, far more than a sporting event, I’ve never come across a more politically significant, emotional … moment then what was witnessed at the World Cup.”

Today is December 5. A day I will never forget. Even though Mandela died three years ago, his spirit lives on today. Let us learn how to see the bigger picture in our global world. 2016 has shown us that a lot of work that still needs to be done to give everyone a voice but let Nelson Mandela be a reminder to you all that unity is possible and that we can all truly use our differences to make a difference. Thank you Madiba!

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