The outpouring of grief that accompanied freedom fighter and former South African president Nelson Mandela’s death was a timely reminder of what truly inspirational leadership means.

Mr Mandela was a symbol of soft yet strong-willed leadership, winning the hearts of many. Today’s leaders need to appreciate the importance of genuine leadership, and to know it goes beyond a title and a suit.

Here is a list — inspired by Mr Mandela’s name — of the inherent qualities they need to be successful leaders:


Leaders like Mr Mandela have a little magic in their makeup that inspires their followers. There is something special about them, something beyond words and ideas that followers see in their leader to be inspired.

Leaders need to find out what their special aura is and express it to win hearts.


Great leaders are always available to their people. The most successful governments and corporations are those with open communication, right up to the top.

A mailroom clerk should have easy access to senior management, because it is people on the ground like him who make a difference, and who know what will make a difference to customers they serve.

For example, the clerk would know there is a spike in customer complaints during the festive season and can highlight certain issues that need to be addressed.


While the end-goal is fixed, leaders need to know there are many alternatives towards achieving that goal.

In today’s rapidly changing world, nimbleness and agility are of utmost importance. History has shown that procrastination and rigid thinking have led to high opportunity costs.

Leaders must be able to think on their feet.


Pure dreamers may have a lofty goal but they sometimes lack the drive to achieve it. Pure realists become leaders who are too involved in the action and lose sight of the goal.

Dreamers who are grounded in reality are those who achieve their goals. Apple founder Steve Jobs is a classic example of this type of dreamer. He sets out to achieve what others think is impossible through sheer drive, discipline and concrete action.


Mr Mandela won many hearts because he displayed a genuine empathy for people. Whether he was struggling for political freedom or racial equality, he never failed to hear out both sides and put himself in their shoes.

As a result, even his dissenters were won over. Leaders need to show they care about their people, even in their drive to achieve results.


Leaders need to be measured in their responses — rational in times of joy and calm in a crisis. While followers can afford to let their emotions get the better of them, effective leaders need to be in control.

Level-headedness is a key leadership quality that is frequently neglected. People need to know their leader is steady, for if the head is rattled, the body will follow suit.


Less talk, more action. As discussed earlier, leaders need to be action-oriented and show they are willing to put in the same amount of effort, if not more, than their followers.

“Lead by example” is a golden rule that leaders should embrace, for they are closely watched by their teams for any signs of inconsistency between what they say and what they do.

In nurturing these seven qualities, leaders have the opportunity to be inspirational and exceptional — truly a Mandela-like leader.


Article by Looi Qin En, chief brand and marketing strategist of Training Edge International. He is a branding and marketing expert who has successfully transformed businesses through his expertise. For more information, e-mail or visit