Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

The Charismatic Appeal of Nelson Mandela

What the world saw—and wanted to see—in Mandela

Posted Dec 08, 2013

Nelson Mandela was a rewarding example and great source of inspiration for anyone who has anything to do with leadership, from politicians to CEOs and journalists to researchers. Scientists have long been searching for that mysterious 'X ' factor of leadership, charisma. Jesus and Buddha had it, Churchill, Gandhi, FDR, and JFK possessed it too. Obama had charisma when he ran for office for the first time, but somewhere lost it on the way. I'm pretty sure that Nelson Mandela was gifted with that X-factor leadership quality too.

What is charismatic leadership? The 19th century German sociologist Max Weber defines it in terms of  "a particular quality of a person on the basis of which he is distinguished from ordinary people and endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional personal qualities."

In the tradition of Weber many psychologists have looked primarily at the personal qualities of charismatic leaders. They discovered for instance that charismatic leaders are verbally gifted—they use a lot of metaphors in their speeches—and have a good antenna for what people think and what worries them. The latter is called empathic accuracy.

Other researchers put more emphasis on the actual behaviors of charismatic leaders. Leaders are more charismatic when they set the group interests above their own personal interests . Both characteristics—empathy and self-sacrifice—were obviously eminently present in Mandela’s case. What contemporary leader has spent a good part of his life in captivity for a greater cause —although he was repeatedly offered freedom if promised to give up the armed struggle against the Apartheid regime?

The eyes of the beholder

But these personal qualities were only part of the charismatic appeal of Nelson Mandela. Charismatisch leadership is not just something about the person, but maybe especially about the situation. Think of the simple gardener—beautifully played by Peter Sellers—in the classic movie Being There. By pure coincidence he ends up in the top of American politics because he conveys these simple wisdoms about how the garden changes with the seasons. Fellow politicians and the public cannot get enough of his wisdoms and perceive him as the savior of the country.

Psychological research shows that charisma is largely ' "in the eyes of the beholder.” Does this apply to Mandela too?


Nelson Mandela was lucky in some way. When he was released from prison most people in South Africa and the world were convinced that apartheid was a bad thing and they wanted this system removed. Mandela was the poster boy of the anti-apartheid struggle, and his great esteem and forgiving nature were just what the world was looking for in terms of bringing political change.

Psychological research shows that people want a charismatic leader in crisis situations. In one study when participants were asked to write down how they felt if they knew that they were dying, they more often choose to follow a charismatic leader, whereas under normal conditions they preferred a task orientated leader.

Be different

Charismatic leadership is particularly important when people are desperately looking for change and are dissatisfied with the existing political hierarchy in bringing about change. Consider the charismatic appeal of Jesus in response to dissatisfaction with the corrupt priests of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In such cases people are more likely to follow someone outside the existing political hierarchy is and whose reputation is not being corrupted by the past. Again, Because Mandela was absent for 27 years from the political scene in South Africa he fitted the bill perfectly.

Research shows that outsiders have more charisma. People with salient physical characteristics, such as particularly large or asymmetric face, tend to score higher on charismatic leadership scale.

The same “attention-holding power” of outsiders is seen in groups of primates. Sometimes newcomers appear in a group and they suddenly draw attention, especially from the females . They use that attention to challenge the alpha and overthrow him with the support of the lower ranked animals.

The relation between charisma and sex appeal is not spurious. After public speeches Adolf Hitler - who was also very charismatic – regularly received letters from women in the audience who were intensely love with him and thought he was in love with them too because he stared at them. It is rumored that Mandela was also very popular with women. Yet unlike Hitler he reciprocated the interest of women sometimes.

Develop your charisma

Charisma is probably the oldest, most primitive form of leadership because it is entirely based on special personal qualities of someone who a group currently needs as their leader. In hunter -gatherer societies the hunters , doctors or warriors enjoy the most respect. To get charisma and attract followers, it is useful to know what value you can have for the group you want to lead.

What many people do not know about Mandela is that since his childhood he received a lot of training in leadership The most important lessons about leadership did not come from his law practice or his imprisonment on Robben Island, but from his adoptive father. After his biological father died, Mandela was adopted by Jongintaba Dalindyebo , the supreme leader of the Thembu , a tribe in eastern South Africa. This tribal leader was very concerned about the fate of his people and also very diplomatic. Young Nelson watched as people from all walks of life stopped by to convey their problems to the chief. His father listened carefully and only spoke after everyone had finished . He did not make decisions for them, but merely gave advice and suggestions.

Just like with his father, Nelson’s charisma grew day by day in South-Africa, Africa and the world at large and his diplomatic skills were an important part of his charismatic appeal.

So if we want to understand Mandela’s charisma we have to consider both his personality and upbringing as well as the needs and anxieties of the people who were desperately looking for someone like Mandela to represent them. That X-factor of leadership, charisma is best understood by considering both person and situation.