The Rise of the Social Leader

What it takes to achieve and maintain social leadership status.

Where do terms such as social leadership come from?

In this case, it seems Professor Jaume Filella, from the Esade Ramon Llull University in Spain, coined the term to represent leaders “who have followers because of their ability to bring people together, facilitate agreements, and drive efforts in the same direction.”

The Financial Times draws upon this definition of a social leader and suggests the late Nelson Mandela as an epitome of a social leader.

A civil society organization group from Australia describes social leadership as “leadership in strengthening society and in finding solutions to social challenges.”

It is no wonder that Mandela could claim, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Are we using our organizational education, training, and learning programs to produce positive change in the world we have stewardship over?


Social leadership is all about bringing groups of equals together to unite and work together to bring about essential change, often at great cost of energy, time, and personal sacrifice.

Mandela was fighting for freedom, equality, and the eradication of apartheid in his beloved country of South Africa. He taught us a quality of social leadership with these words, “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942, and for 20 years he directed a campaign of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies.

Even within the ordinary workplaces where we create learning and organizational development, are we prepared to sacrifice all for the freedom of learning for the people we directly serve and for our communities?

Mandela had to find common ground between the black and white races of then-apartheid South Africa. Francois Pienaar, the captain of the 1995 Rugby World Cup winners, stated that Nelson Mandela used the sport of rugby to heal their nation.


You will find all social leaders have a clear agenda of how they want to change things and develop a system supporting their ideal vision. These leaders have no hidden agenda and only a personal investment in making a difference. They are altruistic in nature yet able to deal with the complex issues and processes involved in change.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being arrested and put on trial for conspiring to overthrow the state and sentenced to life imprisonment. With the growing domestic and international pressure to end apartheid in the late 1980s, there were fears of a racial civil war. That’s when President F.W. de Klerk released Mandela from prison.

When Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, he said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Together, Mandela and de Klerk negotiated an end to apartheid and organized the first multiracial general election in 1994, which saw Mandela become South Africa’s first black president as head of the ANC. They both went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for eradicating apartheid.

In 2008, Mandela reminded the people of Kliptown, Soweto, that “a fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”


Social leaders have strong character and self-esteem. They do not seek recognition or publicity and would rather not be recognized for their efforts for the causes they fight for.

In our social media “selfie” world, we must develop more inner leadership traits in our education programs. This begs the question of whether we’ve even identified the leadership attributes our organizations really need.

The Boston Globe obituary notice for Nelson Mandela described him as “patient and unrelenting in his efforts to overturn South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime. Mandela was a pillar of grace, magnanimity, and restraint in victory.”

With the need for greater corporate social responsibility, we must ensure our management and leadership development programs build in learning objectives for developing social leadership.

Julian Stodd, author of “The Social Leadership Handbook,” states: “Social leadership is not something soft, something ‘nice to have,’ something of an add-on to formal power; it’s central to the authority we need to wield in the Social Age to truly lead.”

Perhaps the best outcome of becoming and developing social leaders in our organizations will be the building of greater employee engagement; better collaboration; diversity and inclusion; and taking on causes meaningful to our customers, stakeholders, and the broader community.

During the 90th birthday celebration of fellow anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu, Mandela summed up nicely the personal benefits of social leadership. He said: “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.”

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at or visit

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: