He failed 35 courses before obtaining his law degree, had two failed marriages and faced fierce political opposition.
But Nelson Mandela overcame the struggles on his journey to leadership.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Blackwell & Ruth Publishers are compiling a five-year series on leadership inspired by the late statesman.
Titled I know this to be true, the series identifies and interviews global leaders on their leadership journeys.
The videos and booklets will be sold and distributed worldwide.
The foundation will use the money to provide the books, free of charge, to youth from 144 developing countries.
The series is the brainchild of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s chief executive Sello Hatang and historian Verne Harris.
The two have written a book on Mandela’s leadership lessons.
“The partnership with Blackwell is about creating an online resource where we have spoken to 12 people who have shown leadership and are role models ... and their stories are inspiring in terms of finding the leader within,” said Harris.
“The book on Madiba’s leadership lessons comes from that. In addition to the online resource, there will be a series of books with each one telling a story of someone who exemplifies the kind of quality of leadership we are looking for.”
Harris said good leadership was desperately needed around the world “at every level”.
“Looking at leaders in schools, superintendents of hospitals, counsellors and local authorities, we see that we are desperately short of committed quality leadership,” he said.
The project is due to be launched early next year with more than 10 interviews scheduled.
Four interviews have already been completed.
Those interviewed are Nobel Peace laureate Dr Denis Mukwege, human rights lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson, social activist Gloria Steinem, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, food activist and Michelin chef René Redzepi, and Nobel Peace laureate and former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
She talks about the outbreak of Ebola in her country and how she thinks she failed in her response and the lessons she learnt from that.
Activist, broadcaster and writer Waleed Aly, and former Constitutional Court of South Africa Judge Albie Sachs are also in the interview lineup.
Harris said their personal experiences with Madiba were integral in the work he and Hatang put into the series.
Harris, who worked in ANC structures in the 1990s, joined the Mandela Foundation in 2004. He had many great interactions with the elder statesman.
“But I stopped talking to him about work when he made it very clear he was getting tired,” he said.
“The last time was when Ahmed Kathrada and I had gone to his house to consult him about issues only he could answer.
“What he said to us was: ‘You know, chaps, at my age you can remember some things and [not] others. I don’t remember any of that. Now do you mind if I read my newspapers?’ Now that was clear he had had enough,” Harris said.
He said while there were many books about Madiba, he and Hatang “want to share what we learnt from him directly and what we found from his private papers, his diaries and notebooks, when he was talking to himself”.
“So we are looking into things any human being can identify with and learn from. Disciplines of character, which we believe gave him the energy to do the big things in life,” Harris said.