Why great leaders are spiritual

Mandela in 1998. Photo: Agência Brasi

On a day we honor Nelson Mandela, surely we are also pondering what makes leaders great. As in truly great—creating benefit, easing suffering, moving humanity forward on a large scale. We all have our own list of such leaders. Mine includes Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Gorbachev, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Deitrich Bonhoffer, and of course Nelson Mandela. What unites them, with the exception of Gorbachev, is deep spiritual practice combined with great political skill. All are moral exemplars as well as effective leaders.

The best of our leaders are a kind of saint-statesperson, whose character is immediately apparent and transformative in its own right. When Abraham Lincoln gave his famous speech as Cooper Union in New York, one observer wrote afterward, “I have just seen the greatest man since St. Paul.” This is the ultimate power of decency, egolessness, and emotional intelligence. It is why Nelson Mandela’s light shone from a cell on Robben Island and changed his country and a continent and rid the world of a great shame.

Here are two Shambhala Sun stories about great leaders and the spiritual practice that informed their work. Here is Charles Johnson on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his biographer Roger Lipsey on UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.


  1. Brandon says

    "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying." -Nelson Mandela

  2. hipbone says

    Is Nelson Mandala (as above, mentioned after Bonhoeffer) the Buddhist Nelson Mandela by any chance?

    Okay, it's a typo — but a felicitous one, in a world where correctly spelled words can't always deliver felicity.

  3. Murad0123 says

    It is not surprising, that complex social situations may be perceived quite differently by the various members of a group. Members may also have different reasons for joining the group, and be working toward different goals. Nonetheless, the group has some reason for being.