5 Lessons on Implicit Bias From Nelson Mandela

As we mark the first year anniversary of the death of Mr. Nelson Mandela, this post is dedicated to the memory of a world-class leader who taught us so much about inclusion, forgiveness and reconciliation.


In his memoir, Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela recounts an incident that occurred early in the anti-apartheid movement on one of his trips to garner support from other African leaders. The incident caused him to experience what he called “a strange sensation” as he was boarding an Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis. He noted that the pilot was black, and because he had never seen a black pilot before, in the instant he saw this pilot, he writes that he had to suppress the panic that arose within him. “How could a black man fly an airplane?” he asked himself.

But a moment later he had caught himself and recounted: “I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat and chided myself for such thoughts.” Once they   were in the air, he lost all of his nervousness and began to study the geography of Ethiopia.

What could cause a man who was fighting for equality and inclusion to initially react in such a way? Surely, if the man who would become synonymous with inclusive leadership around the world could experience such a moment, perhaps any of us can as well.

What Mr. Mandela poignantly describes in his book is a phenomenon that most of us grapple with. It is called by many names, including implicit bias, unconscious bias or implicit association. Implicit bias can be defined as the ingrained habits of thought that, when left unchecked, lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason and make decisions.

Here are five lessons about implicit bias we learn from Mr. Mandela and what we can do about it to become more inclusive leaders, managers, co workers and public servants.

(1) EveLong_Walk_to_Freedomn the Most well-Intentioned People Grapple With Implicit Bias

It is not a passing point that Mr. Mandela included such an encounter in his memoir. The global icon of forgiveness and equality tells of a small but poignant incident that he could have left out of his story. No one knew it—it was a very private moment. Yet he acknowledged his own internal grappling with a biased thought. Any person committed to inclusion must likewise acknowledge the internal grappling with her or his own thoughts and mindsets that are in conflict with his or her espoused values. Coming to grips with such conflicts is part of our own journeys toward freedom.

(2) Implicit Bias Is Facilitated By The “Automatic Pilot” Of The Mind

Our minds have two sets of processes that work together—reflexive processes and reflective processes. The reflexive processes of the mind are the unconscious, automatic processes that make assumptions and associations.

Mr. Mandela had described feelings of panic arising “in an instant.” That’s how the reflexive processes of the mind work. These are the processes by which we make associations and connections without really thinking about it. We quickly and without thinking make an observation. Then in a flash our minds categorize the observations, sometimes in stereotypic categories. Then, very quickly we make inferences, jump to conclusions and make snap judgments about another person’s abilities based on nothing more than our association of that person with a category. Without even realizing it, or examining the truth of these messages, we can unconsciously decide a person’s ability to perform a job or assignment based on a fleeting feeling. Mandela called it a mindset. As people committed to inclusion, we have to consciously examine our own mindsets and take our thinking processes off automatic pilot.

(3) Implicit Bias Stems From Cultural Stereotypes

In addition to our own autopilot processing of the brain, which causes us to make some pretty quick, if not faulty judgments, unconscious bias is fed by the cultural memes about entire groups of people. These thoughts are informed by the cultural messages, assumptions and values to which we are exposed on a regular basis. Mr. Mandela, in assessing the roots of his faulty thinking, admitted he too, the anti-apartheid crusader had been affected by “the apartheid mindset” which thought Africans were inferior. Mr. Mandela’s momentary association of white men with airline pilots was an implicit association.

No doubt he never received an explicit message undergirding the association that only white men could pilot airplanes—had he, he surely would have resisted it. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and Dr. Anthony Greenwald, researchers and authors of Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, have developed a test that helps us explore our “implicit associations” around a variety of topics, including race and gender, the two that Mr. Mandela exposed in this story. It was both whiteness and maleness that were the tacitly accepted categories for airline pilots in those days. How often today, however, do we subtly and almost imperceptibly fall for the stereotypes and mindsets related to specific ethnic groups, job classifications or political office? People committed to inclusion make explicit their implicit assumptions,  examine how these assumptions affect their judgments and assessments of other people, unpack the faulty assumptions, and broaden their perspectives to consider more options.

(4) Exposure Fuels Implicit Bias.

Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Mandela’s processing of his own thought processes. He states “I had never seen a black pilot.” Sometimes our lack of exposure to or experience with specific groups of people in specific roles can lead us to easily, and without thinking buy into stereotypes about them, or to overlook and not consider them. Hiring managers and members of search committees have to work hard to not let unconscious bias hinder them from, without thinking, privilege or give the benefit of the doubt to people who are most like them; or to discount and minimize people who are most different from them. In the time it takes to read this sentence the brain on autopilot searches for clues of similarity or difference and almost instantaneously places that person into a predetermined category, that more often than not does not truly reflect the person’s capabilities.

On the flip side, over-exposure or association of certain groups in specific roles can also heighten unconscious or implicit bias. I can’t help but think, that the string of shootings of unarmed black men over the past few months, is in part fueled by the over-association of young black men with danger or crime. Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 best seller, Blink, chronicles one such shooting; that of unarmed Amadou Diallo in a crime-ridden neighborhood of the Bronx. Diallo was on the second floor landing of his apartment building getting some air. Gladwell writes that the first error one of the officers made when he saw this young black man was that they “sized him up and in that instant decided he looked suspicious.” The officer’s thoughts escalated to labeling Diallo as “brazen” when he continued to stand on his own porch. Gladwell concludes, “The officers made a series of critical judgments, beginning with the assumption that a man getting a breath of fresh air outside his own home was a potential criminal.” There’s a cost to unchecked implicit bias. In Mr. Mandela’s case it cost him a moment of reflection. In Amadou Diallo’s case, the officer’s implicit bias cost Mr. Diallo’s life.

(5) Implicit Bias Can Be Put In Check

We can choose to check our implicit biases as Mr. Mandela did when he “caught himself” in a moment’s notice by making the implicit explicit and exposing the false assumptions of his thoughts. To catch ourselves is to invoke our reflective, thoughtful minds in questioning the judgment we quickly made on automatic pilot.

Recall, no sooner had Mr. Mandela made a snap judgment about that particular pilot, when a moment later Mr. Mandela had caught myself. Later he recounted: “I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat and chided myself for such thoughts.” Here Mr. Mandela displayed the power of the reflective mind: the ability to reflect on our unconscious thoughts and stereotypes and make adjustments in our thinking. The reflective processes of the mind are the conscious and strategic thoughts that Mr. Mandela drew upon to slow down his scurry to false conclusions about the airline pilot, as well as to chide himself for such quick, but faulty judgment. Inclusive leaders can “catch themselves” the moment they realize they may be thinking in stereotypic ways. It behooves each of us to examine our own biases before they become costly. It behooves each of us to deconstruct the messages from the broader culture that reinforces stereotypes and biased tropes of any group of people. It behooves each of us to expose ourselves to the wide range of diverse expressions and experiences from various groups. Implicit bias works against us all as we strive to lead,  manage, work and serve together in our multicultural world.



Implicit bias is a human phenomenon that stems from the super-quick way our brain processes information. Without it we would spend so much time going through a mental checklist of faces and names to recall people we have met or make sense out of our experiences. Yet, we can also make snap judgments, and make faulty inferences based on stereotypes. The good news is we can also reflectively think about how we see other people and challenge how we choose to label them.

Too many people fail to acknowledge those moments of bias, perhaps for fear of being labeled racist or sexist. Many more people tend to dismiss or minimize when others share their experiences of being prematurely judged or treated differently due to stereotypes. Leaders who aim to be inclusive must come to grips with implicit bias. These lessons from the life of Mr. Mandela show us that even the best-intentioned person can quickly pass judgment without thinking. Mr. Mandela’s story, however, also shows us we can examine our own thinking and assumptions and challenge prevailing stereotypes in order to be a more inclusive leader, manager, public servant…human. I am thankful for Mr. Mandela’s transparency. He modeled for us all the importance of challenging bias wherever it occurs—even if it’s inside our own thinking.



Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. BlindSpot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013.

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk Toward Freedom. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1994, 1995.


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