Best Negotiators in History: Nelson Mandela and His Negotiation Style

More than just one of the best negotiators in history, Mandela combined collaboration with strong principles

By — on / International Negotiation

best negotiators in history nelson mandela

The late Nelson Mandela will certainly be remembered as one of the best negotiators in history. He was “the greatest negotiator of the twentieth century,” wrote Harvard Law School professor and former Program on Negotiation Chairman Robert H. Mnookin in his seminal book, Bargaining with the Devil, When to Negotiate, When to Fight.

In his chapter on Mandela, Mnookin cites Mandela’s patience, tenacity, pragmatism, and strategic thinking: “He rejected the simple-minded notion that one must either negotiate with the Devil or forcibly resist. He did both. He was willing to make concessions, but not about what was most important to him. With respect to his key political principles, he was unmovable.”

Mnookin noted Mandela’s ability to persuade his adversaries: “He ultimately achieved through negotiation an outcome that could never have been accomplished solely through violence or resistance.”

In examining decisions made in conflicts with evil regimes, where lives and liberty were at stake, Mnookin also compares Mandela’s decision to initiate negotiations with the South African apartheid government that had imprisoned him for life with the imprisoned Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky’s decision not to negotiate with the KGB for his freedom. The decisions may have been polar opposite, but the outcomes were equally admirable. This is why he goes down as one of the best negotiators in history.

Related International Negotiation Articles:
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offers negotiation skills tips for resolving conflict on the international stage. In this article drawn from negotiation research, we examine Tony Blair’s ten conflict management principles and how they relate to the dynamics of negotiation and negotiation scenarios that are common at the bargaining table.

Program on Negotiation Faculty On How To End the US Government Shutdown
Program on Negotiation faculty members discuss the standoff between US President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over the government shutdown. The negotiation scenarios facing President Obama and congressional Republicans are discussed with reference to potential negotiation strategies and bargaining tactics that each side could employ to achieve its objectives.

Bargaining with the Devil
Sometimes negotiators are faced with the unenviable task of bargaining with a counterpart they don’t like, mistrust, or even worse, think is evil. In this article, Robert Mnookin’s book, Bargaining with the Devil, is discussed with reference to conflict management and negotiation strategies that can be employed to deal with difficult people.

Who do you think is one of the best negotiators in history? Leave us a comment.

Originally published in 2013.

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4 Responses to “Best Negotiators in History: Nelson Mandela and His Negotiation Style”

  • I would say Mahatma Gandhi with his original and ingenuous idea of ‘Satyagrah’ or ‘Non Cooperation, Non Violence’ scored no less, if more, than Mandela. He drove the British out of this country. What better negotiator, the world over, than him?

  • Kimani K.

    And yet it is very plausible that he and his people might have ended up with the short end of the stick

  • Yishebah G.

    I am grateful for this analysis of Mandela’s critical role in the global transformation of human consciousness in sync with that of his tortured country. While many care not to revere this aspect of his role relative to the political and economic legacy of his negotiation. Yet for institutions like this one to champion this attribute of Mandela in an institutional manner, is greatly appreciated.


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