Late Leader Nelson Mandela’s 5 Most Innovative Moments

Remembering the man who pivoted an entire country.

Late Leader Nelson Mandela’s 5 Most Innovative Moments

With the passing of Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela at age 95 on Thursday, one of the world’s icons is lost. But his legacy of leadership remains. Here, we present five of the South African leader’s most innovative moments.


When you have a just cause, go global.

The world’s most famous political prisoner was a master of social media before the term existed. During the 27 years he served in Robben Island prison, anti-apartheid activists around the globe took up what has been called the largest social movement in history, under the slogan “Free Mandela!” The campaign began with a declaration on Mandela’s behalf presented to the United Nations in 1964, signed by personalities ranging from Simone de Beauvoir to the Dalai Lama. It eventually encompassed petitions signed by organizations representing no less than 250 million people and protests in every region of the world, symbolized in the United States by divestment campaigns with encampments on college campuses coast to coast.

Be open and forgiving; trust the truth to build bridges.

After being released and eventually taking office as South Africa’s president, Mandela convened the world’s first truth and reconciliation commission, which had the power to investigate and grant amnesty to those guilty of human rights violations. The approach has been adopted in countries recovering from trauma ranging from East Timor to El Salvador.

“Many of us will have reservations about aspects of what is contained in these five volumes. All are free to make comments on it, and indeed we invite you to do so,” he said on presentation of the commission’s report. “The further construction of that house of peace needs my hand. It needs your hand. Reconciliation requires that we work together to defend our democracy and the humanity proclaimed by our constitution.”

To maintain the health of what you’ve built, know when to step aside.

As George Washington did at the dawn of the American nation, perhaps Mandela’s bravest and most meaningful decision was to leave office at the age of 80 after serving just one term as South Africa’s president.

It’s never too late to make up for mistakes.

After leaving office, Mandela expressed regret for not doing more to combat the AIDS epidemic and the stigma surrounding it, and he devoted significant effort to it in retirement, particularly after losing his own son to the disease in 2005.

You can embody courage while still feeling fear.

Mandela’s biographer Richard Stengel was on a six-seater plane with the president one day in the early ’90s. “I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window . . . and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, ‘Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn’t working.’ . . . “


The plane made an emergency landing, and Mandela turned to Stengel afterwards and said, “Man, I was scared up there.” As Stengel recalled, “It was such a revelation because that’s what courage is. Courage is not, not being scared. Courage is being terrified and not showing it.”

[AP Photo | Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt, Pool | Flickr user K. Kendall]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.