With the passing of Nelson Mandela, could the era of great individuals be coming to an end?


Nelson Mandela’s death represents far more than the demise of an exceptional individual. His commitment to finding a political settlement to the South African conflict ensured the emergence of a stable, unitary state. His capacity for magnanimity appeared to have no boundaries, and if the vision of South Africa as the “rainbow nation of God” was never quite realised, Mandela was instrumental in promoting its ideal. The defeat of apartheid was the climax of anti-colonial struggles everywhere. In this context, therefore, Mandela’s passing marks the death of innocence and optimism that accompanied these victories. For in an era where the majority of Africa’s citizens have been badly let down by their leaders, Mandela and his generation delivered on a set of ideals that were altogether noble: the pursuit of freedom, the creation of a non-racial (as distinct from multi-racial) society, and, perhaps above all else, the restoration of human dignity. Dr Wayne Dooling is head of the history department at SOAS, University of London.


The ability of great individuals to shape history is not diminishing. Nelson Mandela’s qualities and impact as a leader are indisputable – he was courageous and resolute. He was the pattern breaker. Mandela played his role magnificently, and we can learn great lessons from his life. But now it’s time for a new generation of leaders to emerge, leaders who are equally motivated and capable of empowering others, and of developing more leaders who can transform institutions for good. Inspiration is one part of this, development is another, but it is also important to be aware of the different places great leadership can be found. A recent example from the private sector is of course Steve Jobs. He managed to transform Apple, and make an enormous difference to the way we as consumers act and think. At the same time, Jobs created an environment in the company where individuals around him could all help drive the Apple vision forward. Brian Bacon is the founder and chairman of Oxford Leadership Academy.