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Leadership Lessons From Nelson Mandela and Stephen Covey


UPDATE: My heart is saddened by the passing of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013. He was 95. The life he lived will continue to be an inspiration to me and millions of people.


In the world of exceptional leaders it’s been a week of joy and sorrow.

On the sad side of things, Dr. Stephen Covey passed away on Monday, July 16, 2012. Covey was an educator, best-selling author, motivational speaker, and businessman. His book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is one of the most influential personal development and business books of all-time. Twenty-five million copies have been sold in 38 different languages!

Since I first read it, Habit 5 is one of the fundamental principles of my communication style: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

On the happier side of things, Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and former President of South Africa, is celebrating his 94th birthday today (7/18/12). I always thought I had a lot of determination and grit until I read Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. I remember thinking to myself, “Al Duncan, you need to step up your game.”

Of course, neither Mandela nor Covey are without flaws and that’s what makes them great. Both epitomize many of the characteristics of exceptional leaders. Here are two of the numerous leadership lessons that can be learned from studying their works.

1. Leave a legacy.

It’s not uncommon for most leaders to have moments of brilliance, but exceptional leaders have a timeless, positive impact on the world. Covey’s books, training programs and variations—such as The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Teens written by his son, Sean Covey—are required reading at hundreds of companies and institutions.

Mandela is in an elite class of leaders, with men and women such as Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein, Churchill, Margret Thatcher, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Gandhi who have had a direct impact on the history and direction of the entire world.

Duncan Nugget® #336:
Legacy is the final measure of leadership.

 Million-Dollar Question:
What will your legacy be?

2. Stick to your principles.

“He doesn’t have any principles. He doesn’t stand for anything.”

That is one of the worst things that could be said about a person. Without the right principles, a leader cannot leave a lasting legacy. Principles are the navigational system for a leader during his or her journey. When distractions and temptations cross their paths, exceptional leaders struggle like everyone else, but they find a way to stick to their principles. 

If you know their stories, you don’t need me to explain to you that Mandela and Covey lived their lives centered around noble principles. They have inspired countless others to do the same. In fact, it was Covey who coined the term Principled-Centered Leadership and wrote a best-selling book on it.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison and still never compromised on his principles. Incredible.

Million-Dollar Question:
Regardless of the situation, do you have the courage to stick to your principles?

I don’t know if Mandela and Covey knew each other, but even while carrying out completely different missions on different continents, they managed to give the world two powerful legacies and a set of timeless principles that will impact leaders for generations to come.


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