Nelson Mandela has died at age 95. While many still debate his political standpoints, one thing is clear: he was a moral compass for more than just South Africa, his compassion for people reached around the world and influenced statesmen and ordinary people alike. His tenacity and strong will are legendary, part of what has seen him live through unbelievable hardships and challenges, yet stay resolved in his will to see his dream become a reality.

Mandela is a shining example of what a long-term view can achieve, sticking steadfastly to his principles and repeating simple, insightful  phrases along the way until everyone finally gets it. A view that is now so widely accepted among South African’s and many others around the world, that to consider that he spent 27 years in jail for daring to think that diverse cultures might live together peacefully, sounds ludicrous today.

In the 1980’s wearing a T-shirt with Mandela’s image got you five years in jail under South African law. Today his image is everywhere, with hundreds of thousands of T-shirts worn in honour of his legacy and in respect for this remarkable man. It’s a stark reminder of the twists of history and how yesterdays “terrorist’s” can become tomorrow’s respected leaders.

As hard as it might be to believe, President George W Bush only signed a bill removing Nelson Mandela from the terror watch list in 2008, at age 90. Mandela emerged from 27 years of incarceration without an agenda of revenge or remorse. Instead he started rebuilding his dream of reconciliation among South Africa’s racially divided population. His first words were to affirm that all South African’s, whether black or white, were equal citizens and needed to work together to create a “Rainbow Nation.” Along with FW de Klerk, the serving president at the time, he began a negotiated political settlement that focussed on a sustainable future for the entire population.

He was clear that one bad mistake (apartheid) was not to be replaced with another equally extreme system of social engineering. Twenty-seven years of solitude, many of those in a cell on Robben Island measuring only 8-by-8-foot had amplified for him the effect of words and actions when chosen carefully. He has taught us that your background doesn’t have to define you and that change and disruption is a necessary tactic in life, even though most of us would prefer to choose a more comfortable, seemingly certain future.

Although known more for his political views, Mandela can teach business leaders valuable lessons too. A real leader is one whose words and actions are not confined to a sector of society, or even a time of history, but rather ring true and offer value for all time. It’s about finding shared values to cherish, respecting and acknowledging the beliefs of others that are different from yours and ultimately never giving up on an ideal you know has real value for humanity. Below are some of Nelson Mandela’s quotes on a variety of issues.

On speaking Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with the objective conditions do not bring about mass action and can do a great deal of harm to the organisation and the struggle we serve.

On the future Many people in this country have paid the price before me and many will pay the price after me.

On challenges Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.

On friendship I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.

On equality I have never regarded any man as my superior, either in my life outside or inside prison.

On time I never think of the time I have lost. I just carry out a programme because it’s there. It’s mapped out for me.

On death Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.

On ideology I had no specific belief except that our cause was just, was very strong and it was winning more and more support.

On freedom of expression A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.

On character It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

On leadership Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.

On words It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.

On life 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.

On Integrity Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.

On AIDS When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?

On humour You sharpen your ideas by reducing yourself to the level of the people you are with and a sense of humour and a complete relaxation, even when you’re discussing serious things, does help to mobilise friends around you. And I love that.

On selflessness A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.

On determination Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.

Quotes copyright © 2010 by Nelson R. Mandela and The Nelson Mandela Foundation