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10 timeless lessons from Nelson Mandela to achieve success in business & life

An entrepreneurial venture or endeavor often starts with recognizing a problem and leading the charge to develop a value-added offering to solve that problem. An entrepreneur has a vision in his mind for a better future that could exist if things were done differently. Entrepreneurs are also willing to take the risk necessary to bring that vision to life. As business professionals, marketers and entrepreneurs it is valuable to study meaningful problem solvers and risk takers throughout history across the world. There is much we can learn from them.


One of these such problem solvers is Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela, a monumental problem solver, was blessed to live a meaningful life of true significance and impact. Earlier this month Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95.

Being an avid fan of history and studying successful individuals I decided to dive deeper into learning more about Nelson Mandela. I learned that many of the values, behaviors and actions that he embodied to revolutionize South Africa can be utilized to help us in our professional and personal lives as well.

With that said, here are 10 lessons you can learn from Nelson Mandela to achieve success in business & life.

1. Get educated and understand how your world works

Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Regardless of what change you are working to bring into existence you must first understand the reality of what currently is. In this subtitle I used the term “your world” intentionally. Your world can be as little or as large as you want it to be. What problem do you want to solve? Is it an issue that affects your business, community, region, industry or the whole world? Regardless of what addressable market you may have or what problem you may be seeking out to solve you must first understand that “world”. Only after gaining great understanding can you conceive, or comprehend, viable opportunities that can solve problems that exist. Many times as entrepreneurs we may have a vision of how something can be improved in a certain industry, but we haven’t really taken the time to become educated on how exactly the industry currently works. A solution that may sound good to us at first glance may be worth exploring, but after being educated further on the market may not be feasible or ideal.

2. Have a sound heart & mind

If you are looking to add value by solving problems you must first be valuable yourself. If you are a valuable person with solid values, experiences, and wisdom, that value will be injected into everything that you do. Similar to the last lesson, this understanding comes from education of the world around you, but also introspection.  Knowing what is important to you and aligning your actions (or the actions of your brand) with those values will keep you on the right track and help bring your vision into reality.  In the words of Nelson Mandela “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

3. Dream Big

Nelson Mandela had a very big dream. He sought out to develop a non-sexist society free of racism in which all South Africans could live in freedom and prosperity.  On the route to bring this dream into existence he became the first black president, and the first president to be democratically elected. Nelson Mandela believed that every person should dream big and strive to be the best person that they can possibly become.  One of his more popular quotes was “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Big dreams are powerful and can also inspire others to invest their time and resources into bringing your dream into existence as well.

4. Motivate and inspire others

Having a big dream that others can latch on to is definitely a prerequisite for substantial change, but it is not enough. Big dreams can inspire people to action, but a great leader must be able to instill confidence and carry the movement during the tough times. Nelson Mandela once said “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

If people appreciate and value you as a leader and believe in your cause they will often follow you. This motivation can result in almost unfathomable results.  Nelson Mandela motivated others in his country and around the world so much that after being incarcerated for his beliefs for 27 years his followers successfully campaigned for his release. He went on to lead South Africa to stop apartheid and turn his vision into reality.

5. Overcome fear and keep moving forward

Being a change agent can be a scary thing…especially when the risks are severe. Anything of significance is often not easily obtained. More risk…more reward. It is clear that when seeking to do something substantial fear can exist, but one cannot be crippled by that fear.  Nelson Mandela faced some of the most substantial fears one could face…severe injury, imprisonment and death. Yet and still he persevered. He once said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

6. Don’t be discouraged by set-backs

Despite your ability to keep moving in the face of fear there are times when things will not go your way. During these times we must find ways to lift ourselves up and continue pressing forward. In the words of Mandela “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

7. Be relentlessly optimistic

It is a special skill to remain optimistic after being knocked down so many times. Very few people have the ability to remain hopeful and passionate after many trials and tribulations. Mandela had this rare optimism and even he was unclear about the origin of it as evident in this quote.  “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

8. Leverage successes, traction and momentum

When you have started to see the flames of success it is important to add fuel to the fire. Once you have achieved a certain success it becomes easier to continue on that track. This “success to successful” concept can derive from a variety of factors such as: increased confidence, gaining more resources, stronger awareness or reputation for success, etc. Regardless of the hardships that you may have faced to reach this first level of success, it is important to leverage the success so you can continue to obtain future successes. As you begin gaining traction and momentum it will become easier and easier for you to remain on this path. “When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.” – Nelson Mandela

9. Once your goal is achieved…Set your eyes on the next prize

I often thought about this concept when I played sports. If your goal was to make the basketball team…your next goal may be to become a starter on your team. Once accomplished, your next goal may be to be a league All-Star…then earn a college scholarship…play in the NBA, earn MVP in the NBA…you get the idea. The key is to continue using your passion and enthusiasm to reach your next goal. Nelson Mandela once said “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb… I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” After you reach a given milestone it is not time to sit back and relax. You need to continue onto your next challenge.

10. Build your brand & control your image

Nelson Mandela had a powerful brand. This brand stood for education, perseverance, inspiration and freedom. He had clear values and aligned his actions, words and thoughts with these values. He was authentic to himself and others noticed this within him. He guarded and protected his brand by always staying true to it.  Mandela once stated “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.”

As marketers it is important for us to define the values of our brand and remain authentic to it. The same can be said about your personal brand and personal character. Know what you stand for and remain true to it.

Final Thoughts…

Nelson Mandela lived a remarkable and meaningful life. We should strive to remind ourselves of the character traits and pearls of wisdom Mandela embodied. By incorporating these lessons into our lives we can become better equipped to change the world in our own way.

If you could change the world what would you do? Some of the great dreamers of our time had the opportunity to ask themselves the same question. All of these individuals, whether business leaders, political figures, entertainers, or inventors were able to overcome great obstacles to manifest the change in the world that they envisioned. Be a change agent, take risks and bring your dreams into reality. I wish everyone a prosperous and successful 2014.


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