Every year, on July 18, International Nelson Mandela Day remembers and celebrates the life, leadership, and legacy of President Nelson Mandela. He was a revolutionary, the first Black president of South Africa, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela would have turned 100 on July 18, 2018, but his wisdom lives on and is just as relevant today as we fight against racism, inequality, and poverty.
The following quotes from Nelson Mandela teach us that real leadership means lifting your people up and ruling from behind. He knew that nonviolent ways to solve conflict were possible and could create lasting peace. His focus on rebuilding a broken nation, and ensuring equality for all, was paramount in ending apartheid and focusing on reconciliation in order to move forward. We need more leaders like him today.
Mandela's words can also teach us how to live, with the potential to make our community and the world a better place. Most importantly, we should not stay silent when we see injustice or inequality, because, as Mandela believed, a true measure of the strength of a people is whether the most marginalized people have access to equal rights and a life without poverty. And we can all do our part to make that happen.
"It always seems impossible until it's done."
Real leadership is daunting, because it's difficult work. That Mandela achieved the seemingly impossible goals of ending apartheid in South Africa, and reconciling with the very people who imprisoned him, is inspirational. It also makes the small acts of resistance, persistence, and bravery seem doable in our daily lives.
"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."
Mandela tells us we should live a life of service and try to make the people we encounter better off for knowing us — a lesson that we can try to apply in our homes and communities. If it's safe, we can use our power to stand up for that person in the store or at the park facing racism, or who just wants to use the bathroom in peace.
"It is easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build."
In a nation divided, it's so hard to imagine reaching across the aisle and working together. But in Mandela's experience, making peace was the only way to make change.
"As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."
At the Live 8 Concert in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 2, 2005, Mandela told us all to never stop working for change until everyone has equal rights. In other words, a measure of a healthy world is not that the people at the top doing well, but that the people "living at the bottom" are afforded the same rights and opportunities.
"Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference."
In his message to the Global Convention on Peace and Nonviolence in New Delhi on Jan. 31, 2004, President Mandela said equality was the true evidence of peace. While it can be easy to not fight for change that doesn't impact you personally, Mandela would want us to use our privilege to promote equality for everyone.
"There can be no greater gift than that of giving one's time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return."
Mandela lived a life of service to others. This quote from his speech to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Feb. 27, 2004 reminds us that volunteering our time is a gift, and something we should teach our children.
"What have I done to improve the surroundings in which I live? Do I spread racial hatred or do I promote peace and reconciliation?"
In a speech by President Mandela on Oct. 1998 he asked listeners to reflect on our impact and not just our intent. It might be a small thing, like not laughing at a racist joke or apologizing when we say or do something — even unintentional — that hurts someone who is marginalized. Mandela encouraged us to leave the world better than we found it.
"There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."
Don't settle. Be your best. Live like Mandela.
"Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life."
At the Live 8 Concert on July 2, 2005, Mandela reminded us that having access to things like food, housing, and the means to support your family are human rights we all deserve.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
Mandela knew how hard it was to do something scary. He also knew that conquering fear is a true sign of bravery.
"There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children."
In a speech on May 8, 1995, Mandela told us that his top priority was children. He believed access to education was a way to ensure a better world for future generations.
"It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership."
True leaders help the weak and take risks for their people. Mandela showed us what real leadership looked like.
"Fools multiply when wise men are silent."
These words are just as true now as they were 50 years ago. Now is not the time to be silent.