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What Nelson Mandela’s Mentor Taught Him


Nelson Mandela is universally regarded as a phenomenal leader. Known for being the first President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and prior to that a revolutionary and political leader who countless people revered and respected, Mandela’s case study is a fascinating one. 

Though viewed as a controversial figure for much of his life, Mandela would go on to gain international acclaim and support for his activism. He would receive hundreds of honors during his lifetime, including the Nobel Peace Prize. In his home country, Mandela is referred to as the “Father of the Nation”. 

Once asked how he learned to become a great leader, Mandela responded by saying he attended tribal meetings with his father. There he learned many lessons, but he stated two things in particular were of precious value to him as he watched his father, his mentor, interact with the other tribesmen. 

First, the tribe would always sit in a circle. This practice suggested that all were equal, all were unified, and each person’s voice had value. 

And second, his father, the local chief of the tribe, would always speak last. 

The latter learning of watching his father first listen before he would speak is significant for multiple reasons. 

All of us can likely recall scenarios where we have been in office meetings, trainings, or business conferences where the leader in the front of the room talks and lectures until they are satisfied. Often these addresses are a monopoly, one sided, and think little for the contributions or input of others. As a result, these addresses are quickly forgotten. 

Conversely, if you were to think of a mentor or leader-figure you have had within your business career or outside of it, you are likely to discover that somehow you felt heard by them. They made you feel like you contributed. While real leadership is often established through watching the example of other’s actions, feeling heard or validated by others in leadership roles is an empowering gift which can enable a mentee to act on their own and to create their unique success story. 

To feel heard is to feel validated. To feel validated creates confidence. Confidence can drive impressive action. 

It’s been stated that we spend 70-80% of our time communicating, and roughly 55% of our time engaged in listening, and of that time, only half of it is really spent listening with focus. 

For anyone with desires to be a respected mentor, the recipe is clear. Your job to listen is likely more critical than giving advice or direction. 

Active listening is a practice that can be implemented and improved upon through a variety of techniques. Simple practices such as maintaining eye contact (even if a virtual meeting), smiling, demonstrating genuine concern, asking clarifying questions, summarizing, and offering personal experiences that are similar in nature to a mentee’s can enable the mentee to feel better empowered. 

At LevelNext we are creating the most exquisite mentorship experience for people who want to skill-up. Ours is a marketplace of expertise, and designed to connect the right people with the right knowledge to solve the right problems. If remarkable mentorship is truly our specialty, we understand how the best mentorships are carefully created and nourished to reach optimal levels.

Pssst… it’s never through one sided communication. 

Just as Nelson Mandela’s father left an indelible mark, one that would impact how he led on the world stage, you can leave your own impact on the life of your mentees. 

But a simple suggestion: be the one who speaks last. 

Or better yet, as Mandela said himself: “Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

Listen within intent, be present, and seek to understand. 

Only by taking an active listening approach will you be able to provide the best feedback, advice, custom direction that will be meaningful and fulfilling to both parties. 

A final quote from Mandela, which brings it all together nicely:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can change the world.” 

As the teacher, lead with listening ears. In your own way, you can help change the world. 


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