Siyabulela Mandela and Andrew Bedford


Being a leader is a pleasure, an honour and a responsibility that can sometimes challenge even the most experienced. Leaders require understanding, authenticity, empathy, strength, confidence, and tenacity. Being mindful of these traits becomes more challenging during times of difficulty. As the Coronavirus Pandemic continues to unfold, leaders everywhere have faced many unexpected challenges. I connected with Siyabulela Mandela, via video call from his home in South Sudan, with the hopes of being able to share his words of wisdom with our followers across Canada and the United States.

I had the pleasure of meeting Siyabulela on his speaking tour in Canada. I found myself inspired by our conversation as we connected on his important work and our shared admiration of his grandfather, the great Nelson Mandela. Syabulela is the Country Director with Journalists for Human Rights in South Sudan. His work focuses on strengthening the media in a country that has recently emerged from civil war. As South Sudan is finding stability post-conflict, he works to build the capacity of reporters to effectively and objectively cover issues relating to human rights.

Beyond his dedication to such important work, his sense of personal style is very much on point, but more on that later.

Honouring Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

Siyabulela continues his grandfather’s legacy of working to build an Africa that is at peace with itself. I believe this to be a very powerful statement. His work is inspired by his grandfather’s leadership surrounding morals and ethics. “The core of my leadership is treating people in such a way that everyone is respected, regardless of where they come from, what race they are, or the color of their skin.” One of the most important learnings Siyabulela draws from his grandfather is compassion. Nelson Mandela was known for his empathy and tenderness, especially towards children. “He would do anything to help young kids, whether it be building a children’s hospital or funding scholarships. He saw them as the future of our country,” said Siyabulela.

Leading with a People-Focused Perspective  

I asked Siyabulela about his own leadership style. He is adamant about never losing sight of the big picture and putting the people whom you serve first. “As I have traversed through several parts of Africa, I notice leaders who shift their focus towards the immediate interest of those around them. It’s important that we prioritize the needs and interests of those we lead.”

Siyabulela reiterates that as leaders, we must be conscious not to allow the interests of the people and pressures around us to become the focus. Having a people-focused agenda is at the forefront of demonstrating strong leadership and creating impact, especially during difficult times.

Passion is key to achieving an ambitious goal

As someone who is well acquainted with the concept of leading people, and countries, through difficult times, I asked Siyabulela’s advice for those contemplating ambitious goals.

“For people who have the desire to pursue an ambitious goal or to change the world in a substantive way, understand that this is not an easy thing to do. It’s scary and it requires tenacity and self-confidence. First, discover the passion behind your goal. Why are you trying to achieve this goal in the first place? Understanding this is of critical importance. The only way you’re going to sustain the process of executing your goals is by having true passion for the reasoning behind it.” 


Reflecting on Nelson’s views on the importance of a strong team with common values, Syabulela shared, “Nelson was in the midst of giants and he always attributed his successes to those who worked with him. Whenever he was credited with success, he rebutted that these were collective efforts and he could not have achieved them alone.”

“Having a team of people you can rely on, who share the same vision, and who care for the greater good of your initiatives will help you in achieving your goals'', said Siyabulela.

Personal Style and Projecting Confidence

Anyone who has the pleasure of meeting Siyabulela will quickly notice his sharp sense of style. When asked about his own personal style, he noted “When I dress, I dress for success. If I dress for success, I dress in a way that is going to portray confidence and my ability to achieve results in any particular endeavour. Having a style is of critical importance. The way you carry yourself and the way you dress creates a kind of image. If it is a day for me to be successful then I must feel good about how I am looking.”


As I reflect on my conversations with Siyabulela, I feel there are important lessons in his words. Anyone in a position of leadership must always balance what is best for those we lead and those we serve. When we put our people first, we build the type of team, culture and organizations that have the strength to overcome even the most difficult situations.

Andrew Bedford