Meet the Mentor Who Inspired Mandela to Inspire Millions

By Mike BergelsonFebruary 20, 2014

There are certain people whose achievements and contributions to the world give them iconic status.  It’s easy to forget that these people were once young, unsure, and in need of guidance and direction – for although they are now role models for many people, they were once protégés themselves.

In a new series of posts we’ll learn how these remarkable individuals overcame challenges and developed their own lives to the point where they were ready to help other people.  So to kick off the series, here’s a look at the person who mentored one of the most iconic figures of them all: Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s Mentor

The recent obituaries for Nelson Mandela naturally placed the emphasis on his accomplishments as leader of the African National Congress, freedom fighter, vanquisher of apartheid, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and first president of the new South Africa.

But Mandela wasn’t born fully formed. He had to learn and develop like everyone else. The person he acknowledged as his mentor was Walter Sisulu.

Sisulu was the man who recruited Nelson Mandela into the ANC in the 1940s. Sisulu later said in a PBS interview that he immediately saw Mandela’s leadership potential and wanted to mentor him: “My whole approach was to look for leadership and I needed people of that caliber to be around me. I knew that the movement would advance a great deal if it met people of this nature.”

Although Sisulu was only six years older than Mandela, he was in a more senior position in the ANC, and played a key role in his younger colleague’s political education. Together they radicalized the ANC and engaged in more direct action against the apartheid regime throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. With other leaders they were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. They would spend the next quarter of a century in jail on Robben Island.

From Protégé to Leader

It was in prison that Mandela gradually emerged from Sisulu’s shadow and took on the leadership role that Sisulu had been preparing him for since their first meeting back in 1941. Sisulu recognized his protégé’s leadership qualities, and was happy to let him take a more senior role.

At the same time, he still advised his old protégé and challenged him – some of their clashes were so vigorous that their colleagues were sometimes shocked. Sisulu believed in free expression of ideas, regardless of personal relationships, and that was something he passed on to Mandela.

In later years, as Nelson Mandela went on to gain world acclaim and play a central role in bringing down apartheid, he became a mentor not only to others in the ANC or in his personal circle, but to a much wider audience. After Mandela’s death, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “South Africa has lost a hero, we have lost a father, the world has lost a beloved friend and mentor.”

But even as he was leading a movement and then a nation, Mandela still relied on his old mentor Walter Sisulu. The New York Times obituary for Sisulu noted that “While Mr. Mandela was the public face of the African National Congress, by his own account he rarely acted without first consulting Mr. Sisulu.”

Lessons from Mandela and Sisulu

The relationship between Mandela and Sisulu tells us a lot about successful mentoring relationships. Here are a few examples:

  • Good mentors seek out protégés who have the potential to transform their organizations.
  • Good mentors are not jealous or protective; they’re happy when their protégés go on to achieve even greater things than they did.
  • Even when protégés go on to achieve fame and success, they never stop relying on the advice and support of their mentors.
  • Protégés and mentors can and should challenge each other.
  • Good protégés later become mentors to others – they take everything they learned from their own mentor, and pay it forward by helping someone else, or in Mandela’s case, many people.

When Sisulu died in 2003, Mandela paid tribute to his old friend, referring to him affectionately by his tribal name of Xhamela, and his speech included an excellent definition of a good mentor:

“In a peasant society a person walking with a stout stick, a staff – no longer than an ordinary walking stick and lesser than a pole – is a common sight. One always has it around.

It aids one to maintain a steady, firm gait. It is a crutch one leans on, helps you not to falter in your walk. It is also a weapon to help one defend oneself against any unforeseen danger that may arise in the journey. With it one feels secure and safe.

Such was Xhamela to me.”

Could you be mentoring the next Nelson Mandela? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.


Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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