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Leading From Behind

Mandela's lesson to youth on a healthy disregard for the impossible

In an era of great focus on developing leadership in youth, there is no more poignant reminder of that value proposition than the passing of former anti-apartheid revolutionary and South African President Nelson Mandela. His vision, grit, grace and gravitas foretold accomplishments few believed possible.

Yet, of all of the remarkable challenges Mandela faced—both in and out of prison—the one he identified as most significant was creating change; change not for his country, though that was abundant, but rather of himself.

Might it be a truism that in order to transform people and places through leadership we must first learn to change ourselves?

Data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University points to a plethora of character traits, or experiences, young people identify as instrumental to transformation through leadership, including determination, independence, accountability, respectfulness, initiative, dependability, patience, trustworthiness, compassion, industriousness, loyalty, responsibility, creativity and inventiveness.

Important one and all.

Yet there can be found in the credo of the national LeaderShape organization an overarching challenge to prospective leaders to disregard notions of the impossible.

It turns out that’s exactly what Mandela was doing during his 27-year confinement, a time he credits—remarkably—with his being able to change himself before changing his country. Harnessing a set of traits similar to those of the young people interviewed for my research, as well as an additional one referred to as “radical forgiveness,” the man known as Madiba emerged into freedom ready to lead in a way that is surely inspirational to young people across his nation and around the world. Even today.

And that’s a good thing, as Mandela reminded us that today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow. His messages of transition and positive change resonate with young people already inclined to “pay something forward,” understanding, perhaps intuitively, what the South African leader stated so eloquently, “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.”

Sometimes that leading is “from behind,” a powerful concept at the core of the educational model of Camp Rising Sun (CRS), supported and operated by the Louis August Jonas Foundation (LAJF) for more than 80 years. Each summer, CRS brings together 120 teenagers for a seven-week program designed to develop compassionate, responsible leaders who value diversity and are inspired to bring positive change to their communities and countries.

According to Dr. Richard Enemark, LAJF executive director, “In all times of transition there is a possibility of transforming change into leadership. The young people who come to us from 25 countries (including South Africa, two of whom have become Fulbright Scholars) and across the United States recognize that theirs is an exceptional opportunity for leadership, dependent upon believing that we define ourselves as much through affirmation of others as from our ability to strike out independent, alone and triumphant. That is, we teach our campers to become great leaders by leading from behind."

Leading from behind, Enemark explains, means that one does not always need either the title or mantle of leadership to influence others profoundly. Sometimes, it is simply expressed through the support of, and cooperation with, whomever—however temporary—carries the title of leader. Other times it means offering criticism, but with compassion. In all its applications, it teaches the power of inclusivity and mutually held expectations, allowing each to bring his or her best to bear for the benefit of all.

Mandela’s “long walk” toward a free and united South Africa was a journey imbued with leadership from behind and in front … all the while demonstrating a healthy disregard for the impossible.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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