A celebration of 15 years of service


Today I celebrate a huge personal milestone; I have finished 15 years at Standard bank. It has been an amazing journey with life changing memories. I am grateful to thousands of colleagues in South Africa, across the African continent and the rest of the world for their love, support and fellowship over these 15 years. Through their advice, guidance, support, counselling, and feedback, I have become a better person in my personal and professional life. I hope in some way I have contributed to the growth of young leaders in the bank across the continent.

To observe this special day, I have dedicated this conversation to a conversation on leadership I had last year with a colleague, Mandisa Zwane. She asked me some very tough questions that made me to reflect deeply on leadership issues. I hope it will provide some insights to current and future leaders.


I have been asked some questions about leadership – especially as it applies to the corporate world. I provide some thoughts on the subject here, but let me start out by stating that I believe that leadership traits do share universal characteristics, no matter where they are applied.

I believe this because leadership is about leading people towards a common goal, objective, mission or destination. Leadership, whether it is inherited, elected, or appointed, therefore needs to inspire and motivate people towards the desired outcome.

Leadership in organisations, as it deals with people as customers, staff, regulators, or stakeholders, requires a lot of energy, passion, drive, humility and commitment from those who have a responsibility or a desire to lead.

I am inspired by the gauge of leadership strength provided by Kouzes and Posner, which I have modified for myself and my fellow leaders: “Each leader or potential leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and be accountable to them. This requires us as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behaviour and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be how exalted we may be, how elevated our positions may be, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we may have … it must come from a deeper and special place where others benefit, grow or prosper because of our actions… that’s true leadership.”

This is a very high standard to achieve, let alone to maintain, but I feel strongly that it is the standard by which I would want all of us as leaders to be tested. It is those who we have the privilege to lead that should judge whether any of us measure to this leadership standard.

I hope you enjoy the conversation between Mandisa Zwane (MZ) and Lincoln Mali (LM) as I try and reflect my views and experiences on leadership.

Conversation with Mandisa Zwane

1. MZ: What do you feel leadership is?

LM: As you can tell from what I have said above, I feel strongly that leadership is not encapsulated in the positions we occupy, nor is it in the titles that we have or the designation conferred on us. I firmly believe that leadership is a calling, a choice, and that it has to do with how we influence others rather than the position we hold. People occupying leadership positions are not necessarily leaders, nor are they necessarily leading. Equally, people may well be leading, either consciously or unconsciously, without holding any title or leadership position. In the words of Prof Jonathan Jansen, “Leadership is not a position occupied, but an influence that is felt.”

2. MZ: What do you find most challenging about being a leader in the corporate world?

LM: The most challenging thing for me and, I suspect, for most leaders, is to live up to the accompanying role, task, expectations and responsibility. I have to ensure that, in my actions, behaviours, comments, decisions and general demeanour, I live up to the high expectations people have of me and of other leaders. Failure is not an option. Every day, in all my interactions, I have to uphold the values of the organisation and my own leadership standards.

This is the most challenging part of leadership for me because I’m a mere mortal, a human being with weaknesses, temptations and frailties. I have to constantly ensure that these do not derail me and that I live up to my team’s expectations.

The next challenge is to identify, groom, inspire and help the next generation of leaders to take on the mantle of true leadership. This is harder, as you have to influence hundreds of leaders across the organisation through your own actions, your behaviours and the things you stand for. Words are important, but they can only take you so far. What is more important are your daily actions. You are always “on stage”, “on camera” and in the limelight as a leader. It is easier if your value system and your actions are aligned and if your words and deeds are aligned, because people see through play acting or “false prophesy”.

Difficult as these challenges are, this is the life any leader has chosen – or has had chosen for them.

3. MZ: What do you feel it takes to be a leader at the top of the hierarchy in an organisation?

LM: There are many things I could mention, including hard work, being a team player and delivering results. However, my personal aspirations have less to do with the importance of the role, how high up it is or how fancy the title is, so my views on what it takes may be different from most.

Nonetheless, my view is simple: When you are given an opportunity to lead, it must be less about you and more about the essentials. And what are those essentials? The mission to be accomplished, the people you are assigned to lead, how you need to inspire them and empower them towards the mission, how they grow through the process and how the mission is then achieved. If you apply this honestly and sincerely, most of the time, new opportunities will arise, promotions are possible and recognition and reward will follow.

In those cases where you are not noticed, where you are overlooked or do not feel recognised, you have to dig deep inside yourself to remember to focus less on yourself and more on the bigger mission or the organisation. You learn a lot about yourself and what drives you in the process. If after all the introspection, you feel you need to leave, it is better to leave rather than get into a negative spiral when you are in a leadership role. Leadership sets the tempo, the tone or temperature of an environment, so when you as a leader have lost the faith, have a pessimistic view of the future or have lost trust in an organisation; the impact on your team can be devastating. You have to develop safe zones where you can deal with your pain and disappointments. One of my leaders, use to guide and counsel me about temperament, as I got more experience, I understood, much better the need to manage your emotions and have an even temperament, even in the most difficult times.

When you are younger and more ambitious, it’s more difficult to deal with disappointment, but the older and more mature you become, the calmer you are. You can then enjoy the journey of leadership and are inclined to feel less stressed about your position in the organisational hierarchy.

For me, what matters most is:

  • Have I been given a huge challenge?

  • Does it test and stretch me to the fullest?

  • Do I feel supported, empowered and appreciated by my line manager?

  • Am I contributing to the success of the organisation overall?

  • Am I helping my teams to grow and succeed; and

  • Am I fairly remunerated for my efforts?

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, to all or most of these questions, then I’m content and I can continue doing my work and not be obsessed with my next role.

4. MZ: Whom should leaders in an organisation be most in touch with?

LM: This is the most difficult question and probably the most controversial. My views may not match those of others. Even some of those who share them may battle to put them into practice:

Firstly, I think any leader in any organisation must be in touch with him or herself. You cannot lead anybody unless you can lead yourself and it’s hard to change anything unless you can change yourself. So for me, being in touch with who I really am, away from the crowd, is vital. It helps me to stay grounded, humble and real

It means that I am tougher on myself, about what I do, how I do it, and my influence on my own decisions. Some of my biggest leadership battles have been with myself, how to change my social habits, spending patterns, staying in physical shape and standing firm on issues of temptations that you face. It is on-going battles, one must, never declare victory.

Leading a well-balanced life at a spiritual, physical and social level is a leadership battle to be won, everyday. Staying in touch with myself, has made me make key life changing decisions that will give me the outcome I desire and the strength to stay true to such decisions. The older I get, the more influence I have on others, then the more onerous is the responsibility to lead myself.

Secondly, Keeping in touch with those who are closest to you – I am blessed to have people around me – my wife, my kids, my family and my closest friends – who are able to criticise me, give me advice (even when I may not want it or like it) and point out my flaws. It keeps me “on my toes”. This is important for any leader. The higher you go, the easier it is to fall into traps, to fail to listen to others or to surround yourself with people who are “praise singers” or ” fans”, who will only tell you what you want to hear. You have to strive to be a better person, a better human being, and then it’s easier to become a better leader.

Thirdly, I think any leader should be in touch with his or her people. A leader has to connect with people on a number of levels: emotionally, intellectually, about day-to-day matters and about his or her vision. This requires a huge understanding and appreciation of people. You simply must understand and appreciate that people:

  • Want leaders to know, understand and appreciate them as individuals;

  • Want to be part of something big;

  • Want a sense of belonging;

  • Want to be part of a meaningful journey;

  • Want to feel that their contribution is significant;

  • Want to be fairly remunerated and recognised for their efforts;

  • Want to know the leader as a person and build a relationship of trust with them;

  • Want opportunities for growth and development; and

  • Want to have a voice within an organisation.

Most leaders want this as well, but sometimes forget about these things as they go up the corporate ladder. Being in touch with people means understanding these things and being able to build this into what you do as a leader.

I try to stay in touch with my people by spending time with staff during visits to the frontline, by doing lots of listening, by having regular and frank feedback sessions, by getting to know people as individuals and teams, by building lasting relationships and by always making sure I connect with both the “head” and the “heart” with my colleagues.

To hark back to what I said before, I do believe that, as leaders, we can be more in touch if we, “place the people at the centre, are responsive to their needs, are respectful of their wishes and are accountable to them”.

Lastly, but very critically, I think any leader should be in touch with customers. It’s a tragedy that more and more leaders are moving up the corporate ladder without any interaction with customers. Customers are the reason we exist, their contribution fuels the success of our organisation. That is why leaders must always be in touch with customers in terms of:

  • Their aspirations;

  • Their needs and requirements;

  • Trends in their behaviour;

  • Their complaints and areas of unhappiness;

  • The progress they are making in their business, corporate or personal lives.

You can’t do this simply by reading market research reports, although that’s important. It is probably even more important to visit customers at their factories, mines and businesses, to take calls from disgruntled customers, to listen to calls in a call centre, to listen to customers in social settings outside of work and to accompany relationship managers on customer visits. This gives leaders amazing insights and a better understanding of customers.

5. MZ: What qualities are you looking to find in future young leaders in the corporate world?

LM: I look for the following qualities in a future leader:

  • A high level of performance;

  • Great personal initiative and a proactive approach to issues;

  • An ability to work with and relate to others irrespective of gender, class, race or nationality;

  • An inquiring mind;

  • Courage to stand up for their beliefs;

  • Resilience and the ability to cope with complexity and ambiguity;

  • Passion and drive;

  • The best positive attitude; and last, but certainly not least,

  • Humility and selflessness.

6. MZ: What do you feel are the fundamental qualities that, regardless of leadership styles, every leader should possess?

LM: I guess these are most important things for a leader to possess:

  • Integrity;

  • Credibility;

  • Trustworthiness; and

  • An ability to communicate and engage others.

7. MZ: Was there a defining moment in your career that prepared you to become the kind of leader that you are today?

LM: I am not sure that I have had one defining moment on my leadership journey. It has evolved over time as I got to know more about myself, as I grew to focus on things bigger and important than my own wishes and ambitions and as I got to grapple with setbacks and disappointments. My experience of working in the public sector, private sector, NGO’s and not for profit organisations gave me different perspectives and insights about how to lead in different settings. Similarly, working with people from diverse backgrounds across race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, age etc., across many countries, has given me more and better leadership experience. As a leader, you must accept that your mission is life-long learning; this will enhance your leadership skills. As you learn from your mistakes, and advice others, you become a better person and leader.

8. MZ: What are some of the flaws/common mistakes that you see in leaders?

LM: Most leaders are very well aware of these, but we always find reasons to justify our failures:

A lack of quality time spent with the team – Most leaders have never accepted that their primary role is to lead a team by their sheer presence, and the quality time they spend with their staff is the key to that presence. Most leaders complain that they do not have enough time to spend with the team as they are busy with other (important) things. These so called important things, such as meetings, emails, phone calls, lunches, dinners and so one would be enhanced if a leader spent quality time with their staff. My principle has always been to spend about 80% of my time with staff and customers and leave the remaining 20% for the other, so called, (important) things. The quality of time spent gives you amazing insights and perspectives.

Micro-management – A lot of managers have a huge trust deficit when it comes to their staff. This means that they are always checking up on their teams and sometimes doing things that should be done by their teams because they battle to delegate appropriately. This creates huge frustrations for staff and causes lots of friction between leaders and their line reports. We can’t hire people for their brains, experience and expertise, then want to do everything ourselves.

I follow the doctrine of 70/20/10 with the people I work with. This means that 70% of the time, I expect them to run their businesses, make decisions, appoint people, and deliver on their objectives largely without me; but 20% of the time, I expect them to have the maturity and trust in our relationship to consult me on a range of things. This consultation enables us to share ideas, bounce off key thoughts; test the logic of their approach, gain support on key decisions and so on. Within this 20%, there may be issues on which we disagree, but the consultation enables me to have a better sense of their perspective or nuanced view on an issue. The 10% is where they have no mandate or right as this is above their mandate or responsibility. Although I truly believe in empowerment and allowing people to work within the 70/20/10, accountability is always a 100%.

Performance management – Many, many managers are petrified of the performance management process. As a result, they take short cuts, play favourites, bend the rules and, in the process, adversely affect the performance of teams and individuals. My own sense is that people allow their personalities to influence the performance management process. Those who are tough and have little feelings make the performance management process brutal and evil to satisfy their egos. Those who are weak or who seek popularity tend to avoid the performance management process and end up scoring performance on the basis of how they feel about a person at a personal level.

Neither of these approaches is useful. I submit that the best approach has the following key characteristics:

  • Goals are set up front and people are clear about what is expected of them;

  • Leaders make it clear, in both words and deeds, that they are available to assist staff members to meet their goals;

  • Managers ensure that each staff member has a personal development plan to help them to succeed;

  • There are regular conversations about performance to eliminate surprises

  • Formal performance reviews take place at least twice a year;

A formal and well documented performance improvement process is instituted early enough when performance is poor, with the view to improving the performance, but with the acceptance that, if it does not change, the person may lose their job; and the remuneration process is linked to performance without fear or favour. This is a difficult task, but it must be done in a transparent, objective and dispassionate manner in line with the objectives of the organisation.

Behaviour that impacts on employees – There are still leaders in organisations who abuse their positions. Sometimes, they are able to do this because staff are fearful to report such behaviour. Also, sometimes when such behaviours are reported, the next person up the takes no action or there is a poor response from Human Resources. These abusive behaviours include favouritism, victimisation, discrimination, sexual harassment, the use of threatening language and so on. These behaviours are bad, they are horrible and we must never accept them. We must act against such leaders because they destroy so many people’s careers and sometimes affect the health and marriage of a staff member. I have found that the best way to avoid becoming guilty of such behaviours, or to prevent myself from developing a blind spot, is to have regular and anonymous feedback sessions during which my team can express itself about me, my style of leadership and the leadership behaviours I exhibit. It is also my responsibility to tell other leaders about their behaviours and get feedback about mine.

Failure to build diverse teams – Leaders that build and nurture diverse teams are scarce. We still have too many leaders who hire people in their own image. Teams that are built around the image of the leader are sub-optimal. I have fully benefited from having diverse teams in terms of race, gender, culture, religion, language, nationality, skill sets, thinking styles and working styles. These diverse teams have challenged my paradigms, my socialisation, and my assumptions. They have tested my values and exposed my prejudices. I am a much better leader because of such diversity and I have learnt to allow each team and sub-team to develop its own identity and culture within the overall culture. Throughout, I have always promoted respect for and appreciation of every individual’s culture, religion and language.

Lastly, most leaders make the fatal mistake of failing to build a team when they start as a leader in a new role. This involves having immediate suspicion about the old team a haste to bring your own people to strengthen the team. In my own experience, 90% of the time I have always retained about 90% or so of the people that are in the original team.

9. MZ: What does a person need to know about being a leader in the corporate world?

LM: Leaders need to take leadership very seriously, to understand their impact on others and to appreciate that leadership is about service, humility, duty and dedication and that it has little to do with the perks and prestige of the role. Leaders should also know that leadership requires the highest levels of integrity and probity; that the resources, assets and people entrusted to them should never be used for personal gain under any circumstances. Taking on a leadership role requires a lot from each leader in terms of behaviour. The leader is the embodiment of the values, ethos and heritage of the organisation. Lastly, all leaders are merely custodians of a great legacy. We should always preserve it and protect it. In that way, we will build on the foundation laid by those who came before us and, most importantly, leave our organisation better than we found them. Leadership should not be about the power, the glory, the perks, the ego or the prestige; it must be about a much, much higher purpose. It must not be about being a “Boss” to be served, but a leader, why to serve.

10. MZ: What advice would you give to young people starting out or struggling in the corporate world?

LM: I guess the most important thing is to understand that they are entering a very competitive environment. It is a place where people are generally equally skilled, highly educated and very ambitious. So, how does one stand out in such an environment? Obviously there are those who do not want to stand out, who just want to do the job, get the salary and live the high life. That is their choice. I’m not addressing myself to them, although they may change later in life. I want to focus on those who want to succeed. This is the advice I wish I had received quite early in my career:

  • Try to make sure that the job you are doing matches your skills, your interests and passions. If it does, you are likely to enjoy your job and make a success of it;

  • Ensure that you are dedicated, passionate and committed to your work. Hard work is a key differentiator. Volunteer for assignments, work late nights and some weekends as you establish your credentials. This might sound like too much to ask, if you a very hectic social life, but the reality is that those who do this have a definite edge over those who don’t;

The corporate world or any institution is a society on its own. Two important elements determine who will succeed in such a society:

Firstly, the ability to build relationships, nurture such relationships and network will stand you in good stead. This is easier said than done, but it is very necessary for your success. Set yourself stiff networking and relationship targets beyond your comfort zone and outside the relationships or networks with which you share a language, race, geographic background, culture or religion. The deeper your relationships, the more extensive your networks; and the more outreach you do beyond your comfort zone, the better you will be able to navigate the corporate or institutional maze.

Secondly, the ability to influence and be influenced is a key requirement for success. This mutual influence environment only occurs when you interact with more people, participate in more projects, are part of more and different social settings, listen more to other views, open yourself up to knowing more about other cultures, languages and interests and are not stuck in your own cultural or linguistic corner.

You have to become the consummate professional in everything you do. I’m always intrigued by how young people will do everything to ensure that their profile picture is on point on social media because many people are watching, but don’t take half as much effort to ensure that their report, presentation, project or work is of the highest possible standard for the “people who are watching” in senior business circles.

Professionalism is something you instil in yourself. Make sure that you are always, always, always punctual, present, presentable, well mannered, well spoken, diligent, neat and a pleasure to deal with. In this way, you develop a very positive reputation as a professional and this helps your career a great deal. These have a different nuance in different countries, being aware of what helps for him to understand the context and act appropriately.

Your brand is for you to nurture, develop and grow with the same determination you apply to social media and to how you dress and present yourself outside the organisation.

Resilience is another great attribute that you need in a corporate or organisational setting. There will be setbacks, disappointments and frustrations about team dynamics, promotions, appraisals, pay and bonuses, treatment by leaders, and so on. No one rises through any organisation without going through these periods.

Those who succeed are those who have the resilience, tenacity and patience to withstand the pressures; ride the corporate storms and walk through the proverbial corporate “valley of darkness”. The 15years I have spent at Standard Bank have had some dark periods, there were times when I thought of leaving, but all the time, my commitment to a higher purpose made me to stay and soldier on. You are toughened by such situations and develop resilience and tenacity.

I would like to thank Mandisa for asking me questions that have sparked deep thoughts in me, and for granting permission for me to publish this conversation. I wish her luck in her career and may this prove to be a milestone for her as it is for me.

Concluding comments

My own journey has been shaped by amazing leaders who have shaped and influenced my career. These are the true heroes in my story. Finally, the greatest tribute is reserved to my wife, pillar of strength and soul mate, my wife, Sva, for her unwavering support throughout my career. Lastly, my children, Lihle, Amara and Liam, their sacrifice has made it possible for me to reach out to more people and families within the Standard Bank Group.

I hope that the perspectives I have shared with Mandisa Zwane, will spark deeper leadership conversations within Standard Bank and across corporates and other organisations on my beloved continent.

A huge thank you to the thousands of frontline staff, from South Africa and across our beloved continent. I have spent thousands of hours, over the last fifteen years, visiting customers with them, travelling thousands of kilometres in different countries selling our products with them, having fun in their branches, operation centres, cash centres and call centres. I have also spent hours taking questions from them about issues that affect them and using such opportunities to persuade them towards achieving higher business objectives. Each of these encounters has made me a better person and a better leader and I have thousands of photos that are part of my memory bank.

Thank you for making me part of the family!