BOOK REVIEW | Blazing A Trail in business leadership : Burning the patriarchy

21 October 2022 - 17:50 By Eusebius McKaiser
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Lincoln Mali draws on reflections from family, friends and colleagues to highlight leadership characteristics and techniques.
Lincoln Mali draws on reflections from family, friends and colleagues to highlight leadership characteristics and techniques.
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 When I read Blazing A Trail: Lessons for African Leadership I had an unusual reaction. “Is this guy for real?” I kept thinking. I reached out to a friend and left a voice message: “Either Lincoln Mali is the most perfect person- the perfect ally of women, the perfect husband, the perfect ally of queer people, the perfect boss, the perfect dad - or he is an egotistical fraud.”

My friend laughed and suggested perhaps there was a gap between the text and the real person. I decided that instead of doing an author interview via zoom (a hangover from lockdown), I’d rather meet Mali in person. I did not want to meet him in public but either at his home or office.

 I had taught some of the producers I had worked with at Power 98.7 that the best background research for our weekly radio profiles was pre-interviews in the homes or offices of the interviewees. Then you can observe all sorts of juicy details, from how they interact with their staff and colleagues to what is on their bookshelves, in their bathrooms, on their desks, etc. The prepared questions are simple but the real sleuth worth is the hidden agenda. The  agenda is to have your eyes wide open while with the subject. I advised them to immediately write down these secondary observations as soon as possible after leaving the pre-interview, including subtle observations such as changes in tone and body language when certain questions were asked, all of which enabled me to create magic during the live interview in the studio.

 I set about to do exactly this with Mali, who was either a deputy Nelson Mandela or a shyster. I simply could not decide which it was based on the text. For the first time in years I decided to not form a final view of a book I had read pending a meeting with the author. Ordinarily I would find that superfluous because texts ought to be judged as self-standing objects. But I could not shake off my desire to meet Mali first, and so I did exactly that.

I decided to set up a meeting with him so that I could know whether he actually exists. It is not often that I am unsure about whether the person I get to know in an autobiographical work is real. I might have views about the quality of their writing, my reactions to facts about their life, maybe even early intuitions about whether I like them or not. But that they exist is an elementary truth not to be doubted.

Blazing a Trail is essentially a book filled with lessons for African leadership, as the subtitle promises. Structurally it traces Mali’s family history back to the Eastern Cape, Hogsback in particular. His great grandparents on one side of his family had “married across the colour line” in the early 1900s and some of this family history is a fascinating set of micro-stories that illuminate the larger political fault lines of SA From there we learn how he became a political activist at school, and later at Rhodes University, before the bulk of the middle chapters chronicle, in great detail, his leadership experiences as a banking executive – almost two decades at Standard Bank - after a stint in the government.

 The most heartwarming, cogent and instructive parts of the book are the actual lessons in corporate leadership. Mali shatters the idea that successful corporate executives must be ruthless top-down egos who command respect by demanding it, behaving as if they are always the smartest in the room, the most analytically dexterous and first and last to speak. He flips this masculinist script on its head, and the results pay off even if some of his leadership peers are initially skeptical. He was seconded to head business units within the bank across different silos and in different countries around the continent from Zimbabwe to Malawi, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria and elsewhere.

 Remarkably, he would literally spend the bulk of his time in most of these countries driving to branches in far-flung corners of the country, making sure he actually meets with the bank’s staff at all levels and clients and customers. He intuitively understood the power of smashing hierarchies and not simply pretending to understand the value of such workplace democracy . For such a bulky book, its main moral is not actually new, and that moral is that effective modern leadership really is all about “the people”. But what makes the book worth reading closely is the voluminous, compelling and real examples and stories of that much-punted slogan – “It is all about the people”. Given the dearth of ethical corporate citizenship in S A and elsewhere, the kinds of leadership norms that Mali articulates, exhibits and makes a good case for, remain an urgent requirement to ensure economic justice and to increase the odds of seeing more inclusive workplaces that treat all stakeholders with dignity and fairness rather than as inputs with which to maximise shareholder value. 

So why did I go and see him? Because the testimonies from friends, family, mentors, staff who reported to him and many others who have encountered Mali paint a picture of someone who is near perfect. Even his biggest “failure”,  to which he confesses, – namely Standard Bank’s inability to see the importance of fully operationalising a complete strategy to expand banking services and products to reach more poor people who are unbanked – is more a reflection on the shortsightedness of the institution than a reflection on Mali as an individual executive who had done his best to make the case.

 Mali writes: “We had managed to change the strategy of our bank towards this market but did not manage to get the bank to take the next step of taking this market seriously enough to make it a strategic priority. When I look back at my career I see this as one of my biggest failures. I took out my frustration on my MBA dissertation in April 2006, in which I focused on serving the unbanked and low-income market, and drew conclusions about how it could be achieved successfully. These included that products and services had to be tailored to the needs of low-income customers (affordability and appropriateness); that management and operating structures should be altered to introduce a new culture that would enable banks to engage with the poor, leveraging existing social organisations and networks and that technology was the way to realise operational efficiencies and cost savings.

 “I hoped in vain that my organisation would embrace these recommendations. However, Capitec did all this and more, and they have been richly rewarded by this customer base moving with them as their fortunes have changed and, as a result, have been able to attract more middle-class and affluent clients. Sadly, my bank and other large banks could not see the incredible ‘fortune at the bottom of the economic pyramid’.”

Lincoln met me in the reception area of the offices of the technologies company he currently works for in Rosebank after his last meeting of the day. As he approached me, wearing a suit that to my mind cried out for description as a “semi-formal African safari”, he sported a broad smile and introduced himself with gusto. He was in a cheerful conversation with the security guards and looked enthusiastic about seeing me but also somewhat nervously inquisitive, as if I was one of those school inspectors in the 1980s coming to check for compliance with government standards. However, I immediately took a liking to him as we went up to the sixth floor. There was not even a hint of corporate ego. While he went to fetch me a drink I snooped around his office.

 His office is endearingly dominated by photos of his family everywhere. Later, not knowing I had already examined these closely, he proudly asked whether he could “introduce” me to his family and explained who was who. There were some beautiful artworks and massive windows on each side overlooking luscious greens in “the parks” – as the surrounding suburbs are known in that part of Jozi. There was nothing ostentatious about his office and we sat at the main table and recorded what was a beautiful conversation, expanding on themes beyond the book and which readers can access digitally on my second podcast, In The Ring With Eusebius McKaiser ( .

 I liked the guy before me even more than the one whose book I’d read . He listened closely, by which I mean he did not wait to speak (which is not listening) but was genuinely taking in every word and sentence I spoke. So much so that I found myself consciously picking my every word, knowing that he was fully present and that I could therefore not be on autopilot. His body language matched this listening skill. In turn, such generosity from an interlocutor is infectious, making me inclined to return the favour and take in his every word also. This man, from the 90 minutes I spent with him (which, admittedly, is also too thin a basis for a definitive conclusion), is not a shyster. Imagine a “boss” displaying this kind of dialogical generosity when engaging staff. It would instantly pay off, especially in a world of work dominated by the all-knowing, all-powerful, to-be-feared, executive.

 From a technical point of view here is how I square the circle for myself as an uncertain reader but impressed interviewer. The book contains too many bald declarative sentences about Mali’s leadership excellence. This, most unfairly, can leave an unkind or even reasonable reader wondering if he loves himself a tad too much. I blame the publishing team for such ineffective workshopping of a good manuscript. For example, the hundreds of testimonial quotes randomly interspersed throughout the book become jarring after a while, even if they were sincerely meant. There should have been fewer of these and more subtle story telling that implies the powerful leadership conclusions rather than asserting them so magisterially. Put differently, there should have been more “showing” and less “telling”.

 Here is one example of many: “In my engagement with the teams I did not want to come across as a banker or a boss. I found a way to simplify and give banking meaning at a deep, personal level. I tried my best to understand people, their circumstances, battles and fears. When I had opportunities to speak to them, I would weigh in to encourage, sympathise and advise. People were attracted to the authenticity, openness and humility, and I ensured that every staff member felt valued, appreciated and recognised. And it was no act; I was genuinely interested.

 “Through this approach I was able to create a safe space for people to discuss business, career, personal and family matters with me. These conversations were so consequential because each person felt understood, heard and encouraged. Through these conversations I was able to motivate, ignite and build people and leave them in a better space emotionally.”

 After my interview with Mali these sentences strike me as true. But the editorial processes could have saved me the reader from needing to be a sleuth. The simple solution would have been to pare down these grandiose self-ascriptions and simply show these traits by letting the stories dominate - and the glowing implications left for me to deduce.

 Ultimately, however, with these qualifications in hand, I recommend this book as a fantastic antidote to business leadership orthodoxy that has not made the world a better place. Overlook the minor technical sins and enjoy the role-modelling of how to do business-unusual. Mali’s leadership style is not only an account of decency within the world of work but further proof that decency can and does make business sense and not only ethical sense.

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