Mandela (1918-2013) – A Moral Leader

In the mid-‘80’s I was in Washington, D.C., serving as director of the Community of Hope.   The anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum in the U.S.   Mandela was still imprisoned.    Everyday anti-apartheid protestors were being arrested in front of the South African embassy.   I decided to take my turn.   Along with the others that day I was arrested, handcuffed, transported by the police to the nearest precinct and there released without being charged or even identified.

It was a relatively timid thing to do, although more than a little unnerving.   At the moment I was committed to the struggle, not only with the inner-city poor in Washington, D.C., but for freedom in South Africa for which Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for over 20 years.

Mandela is often described as a moral leader bringing us along on his journey from prison to president with hope, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

As the world joins with South Africans this week to celebrate his life and legacy it’s a good time to ask what it means to be a moral leader.

Moral leadership is more than ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership describes personal characteristics such as integrity and honesty.   Doing things the right way, avoiding deception and deceit.

Moral leadership includes that and more.

And yet moral leaders are not perfect human beings.  They acknowledge personal failings and frailties.   Mandela made that clear in his various writings.   He wrote about being embarrassed by all the attention.

Moral leaders are engaged in the struggle for good against evil, right over wrong.

For Mandela it was the struggle for freedom in a nonracial democracy over the oppression of apartheid.    He knew this was possible only by a peaceful transition guided by forgiveness and reconciliation.

Moral leaders are followed for their ideas rather than force.

Mandela emerged as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa during his 27 years in prison.  By the time he was released in 1990 he had already defeated his enemies in the court of public opinion.   He gained the high ground and become a rare revolutionary – a moral leader followed for the force of his ideas.   He had no position, power or authority from which to advance his vision.

Moral leaders are committed to causes greater than personal achievement.

He said he was willing to die in the struggle for the freedom of his people.   While he lived a long enough to receive a Nobel Peace prize and win the veneration of the global community, that was not what he lived for.

Moral leaders cause us to examine our own values.

Mandela persuaded his followers as well as his foes to offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation rather than retaliate with revenge.    What could have been a civil war became a peaceful transition to a nonracial democracy.

He inspired us to examine our own lives however far removed from South Africa.   Do we offer forgiveness and seek reconciliation in our own personal interactions?    Are we living for anything worth more than our own achievements?

This week of remembrance brings the struggle for racial and economic justice, peace and reconciliation, to the fore again.

What does it mean to be, and follow a moral leader in our times?

What causes are worth living for, being arrested for, even dying for?

And shall we pursue those causes with hope, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation?

7 Responses to “Mandela (1918-2013) – A Moral Leader”

  1. James Copple Says:

    Tom: Great analysis on moral leadership and Mandela certainly fits your description. He was a complicated individual which puts into relief his great leadership. We tend to expect our leaders to be Saints. The fact is – there are few risk takers willing to follow these principles because it will drive them to risk. Taking on the institutions of power and influence with little regard for personal consequences is not prevalent in the political or global leadership community. In fact that community has become smaller and smaller. You and I share a common journey having been arrested on several occasions because of South Africa and numerous times because of the Vietnam war. A leader in my denomination said I was an embarrassment to our Church because of this type of activism. Frankly, I was embarrassed that our Church failed to speak on these issues.

  2. Hal Chappelear Says:

    Mandela brings life to God’s written word:”Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

    His life reminds me somewhat of the Mississippi River. When one crosses this quite stream in Minnesota it is difficult to imagine that once she reaches Louisiana, the Mighty Mississippi gives rise to the Mississippi Delta – one of the richest, most fertile soils in our country.

    Your blog is a terrific summary of a truly great leader.

  3. Stan Ingersol Says:

    Tom, thanks for a thoughtful piece.

  4. Roger Bowman Says:


    I deeply appreciate you and your so relevant insights. You have been a trus model of racial reconciliation. You have alway been ahead of the times personally and in the church. Your humble leadership has challenged me many times. Tha Church of the Nazarene is better because of you, and the risks you have taken to point all of us to Christ, the greatest reconcilator and revolutionary of all ages. May the example of this great man start a revival in the church is my prayer.

  5. Bob Sloan Says:


    Excellent insights and well written. I need to reflect on your questions. I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela at a dinner at the home of the Saudi Ambassador. He was a man of great dignity. He commanded great respect by the way he carried himself and how he spoke. I have never been arrested but I think that it takes courage to step out and put yourself on the line in that manner. Thank you for this very thoughtful blog.

    Bob Sloan

  6. Gary Morsch Says:

    Inspiring, Tom! Your arrest for a simple act of civil disobedience is a story I’d not heard before. May I remind you to keep working on that book of yours. I remember asking for your advice when I was preparing to speak at Olivet, and you encouraged me to tell my stories. I took your advice, and have ever since. Now it’s your turn— tell your stories, my friend!


  7. Dave Ralph Says:

    Love Mandela… wonder if the discourse we need to be having at this time is how the church engages in modeling leadership on issues that our Christian ethic demands while at the same time the very leaders who lead the charge of those issues (civil rights, apartheid) themselves either do not exhibit a holy ethical standard or have aligned themselves with an opposing political voices??? The larger question seems to be; “How does the church keep character of voice for justice and not lay down because the personalities may or may not model our holy ethic or because they have aligned themselves with an opposing or more liberal party affiliation. The canonization of Mandela in the public discourse today is that he was a passive non-violent resistance… not entirely accurate. At first he attempted Ghandi’s example he later he turned from passive resistance toward violence, by his own admission see his auto-biography (“Long walk…”). The ANC had a checkered past. It’s easily explainable why he gravitated toward the Marxist political support to defeat Apartheid. 1st because Marxism always, as in this case, comes to the aid of liberating the disenfranchised… it’s their calling card but their end result is tragic. 2ndly The West was silent when Mandela was crying for support and they had backed Declerk (see the battle in his autiobiograhpy, “Long Walk…) the church was silent in many places as well… the Dutch Reformed church supported Apartheid taking the stance that Whites were created by God and therefore chosen(pg 111 “Long Walk…)… The Nazarene churches skirts do not remain unsullied either… some missionaries opposed dismanteling of Apartheid, seeing it as an effective governance tool, while others stood against Apartheid. Our Nazarene church should be applauded in that we participated in civil disobedience by educating the black children after grade 6 (and beyond) when the white government had declared it illegal. That Mandela modeled an unparralleled grace of forgiveness of nearly any Governing leader is unimpeachable… that his past should be sainted is questionable. The discussion for Christians at this point should be how do we go forward and tand for truth, justice and mercy, regardless of the leading personality or the political party that has hijacked the issue (or hi-jacked the church) and stand in the stead of the disenfranchised… I hate to see us come out on the wrong side of the immigration issue… I’ve tried to ordain undocumented pastors and faced considerable opposition, when I bring up that there are times for “civil disobedience” and Acts 4:19 passage of Peter asking the Government if he should obey them or God, the argument was quickly batted down. Fortunately our Gen. Ch. has approved ordaining undocumenteds… The more germaine discussion for us is how do we take future issues and stand on the ground of what’s right inspite of political parties or personalities? Oh by the way Tom love that you spent time in jail. Would HQ have ever hired you knowing that there was a payroll officer in your past :-) I would have visited you in jail had I known!!! Mt 25:36