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8 Essential Leadership Lessons

Here are Nelson Mandela’s eight lessons of leadership with some comments from my perspective. As I read through them recently, I was reminded that these are truths that work well for world leaders, and also pretty well for church leaders.

1. Courage is not the absence of fear—it is inspiring others to move beyond it. Having worked with many leaders over the years, I’ve always been exceedingly aware that there are really only two kinds—those who appear to have everything in control and those who actually spend very little time controlling anything because they’re too busy moving people forward by example. 

2. Lead from the front—but don’t leave your base behind. One leader I know (inspired by Steve Jobs) always tells his students to, “Connect the dots, but don’t forget any of the dots that are behind you—they are just as important as the ones that are in front of you.” How many leaders do you know who focus all their attention on the future and completely forget about what got them to where they are? This is one of the most dangerous mistakes that a leader can make, and I have been both guilty of it and the victim of it. You, too! Admit it!

3. Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front. Humility is at the core of good leadership. People are usually willing to follow someone who they believe has their back—someone more interested in them than in themselves. I love the affirmation model. You can never affirm enough, and, no, you won’t spoil people by saying you think they’re wonderful! The more you are the affirmer, the more the affirmed will take the initiative and move the initiative forward. If this doesn’t work—move them on to some place else—but, please, not to my church. 

4. Know your enemy—and learn about his favorite sport. Remember the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” Well, the truth is that a little knowledge can be an exceptionally helpful thing. Here’s a short list of stuff you might want to know in order to undermine potentially negative relationships:

—What’s your enemy’s favorite sport, and how much do you know about that activity that might break up conversational deadlock? Mandela didn’t like Rugby, but he knew all about it because South African elitists and political enemies all seemed to love the game.

—Do you remember your enemy’s kids’ names? Hey, “You love my kids, I love you!”

—What does your enemy take in their coffee? Sure, it’s a bribe, but you shouldn’t be above it!

 5. Keep your friends close—and your rivals even closer. I’m opposed to this kind of thinking, but have utilized it most of my life. If you don’t want to get run over by a big, honkin’ SUV, run next to it—not in front of it!

6. Appearances matter—and remember to smile. Why is it that some leaders don’t think the rules apply to them? Well, in addition to blatant narcissism, leaders sometimes forget that they were given leadership; they didn’t just wake up having it one day. Earn respect by showing respect! Remember, it was others who placed you in charge. Dress and carry yourself as though you appreciate that fact.

7. Nothing is black or white. So if things are really shades of gray and you spend a lot of time there, does that mean you’re not a Christian? No, God gave us shades of gray so we would have real choices to make. He’s not a cosmic schoolteacher or traffic cop who is ready to slap our hands if we make a mistake. He came to Earth because he expected us to make mistakes. Own those, and let the rest of it go.

8. Quitting is leading, too. Would you be offended if I quoted Kenny Rogers here? You absolutely need to know when to “fold ’em!” Here are some responses to leave conflicting projects. They might also tick people off, so be careful!

—I’m dropping out of this project because my skills don’t match your needs.

—I’m going to bow out of this endeavor now because I personally believe this is not the time to pursue this agenda.

—I’m going to turn down your request for help because, to be truthful, I don’t agree with your position on this matter.

All of these sentences could be used to lead while excusing yourself from the folly of being in the wrong place at the wrong time simply by endorsement.