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Leadership Learned in Prison: A Tribute to Nelson Mandela - By Samuel Ludington

Holy Cross - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

This week the world lost one of its most admired and influential leaders, Nelson Mandela. As I watched the news tributes and commentaries on the life and legacy of President Mandela, there was one comment in particular that further helped me appreciate and identify with this larger than life individual. One CNN contributor shared that, “Nelson became the man that we have come to love and appreciate while he was in prison. The same man that entered prison was certainly not the same man that left twenty-seven (27) years later.” The reality is that prior to his imprisonment Nelson Mandela was combative and aggressive. In fact, he described his first eleven (11) years in prison as being marked by complete hatred. The world fell in love with a leader who was cooperative, caring and compassionate, all qualities that were learned and developed while incarcerated.


As I began to think about the importance that prison played in the transformation of Nelson Mandela, I thought about the role that prison and “prison situations” played in shaping the lives of several Biblical figures. Joseph spent time in prison in his journey to seeing a fulfilled dream, David spent years in the wilderness running away from his mentor before being crowned King of Israel, Paul wrote most of the New Testament while in prison, and even Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness prior to beginning His earthly ministry. What I began to realize, is God will use “prison situations” in our lives to shape and mold us so that He can use us for His purposes. Those times in “prison” allow us to be alone with God, leaning upon Him in complete desperation and finding strength in His complete sovereignty.


Often times we despise the “prison situations” in our lives when perhaps our perspective should be one of optimism, knowing that God can and will use those times to develop us into the people He desires us to be. What transformed Nelson Mandela into the man that we admire today is that he didn’t spend his entire time in prison being resentful towards those who imprisoned Him, rather he spent the last sixteen years of his sentence being molded and shaped by God to the man we admire today. I pray that we, like Nelson Mandela, would not look at those “prison situations” in our lives with anger and resentment, rather we would turn our eyes to God and allow Him to shape us into the people He needs us to become to fulfill His purposes.

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