Speech by Lincoln Mali at the Nelson Mandela University Business School Celebratory Cocktail


Dean of the Business School, faculty members and our MBA and PDBA colleagues, thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts this evening. Although one has been blessed to travel and speak all over the world, an invitation to speak to current and future leaders, in my own town, is always extra special.

1. How will you measure your life?

At just 18, I had been expelled from school, had been to jail twice, had attempted to skip the country to go into exile, was on the run from the police and had not been studying for two years. All this in pursuit of freedom and democracy for all South Africans.

I was not alone; we were an army of angry and disillusioned young people, determined to make South Africa ungovernable and the apartheid system unworkable. We were marginalized, bitter and destructive. We were labeled the lost generation.

But my late father, Wellington Mzwandile Mali, refused to give me up for lost. He had a passion for education. He dreamed that I would overcome my difficulties and grow up to be a responsible and successful member of society. He never lost faith in me. My father dreamed and truly believed that one day that I would study at the Harvard Business School. One of the most profound lessons, I learnt at Harvard was a lecture from Professor Clay Christensen, in that lecture, he challenged us to answer this question, which I hope you will answer for yourselves:

How will you measure my life?”

On the day we leave this earth, what will our families, friends and colleagues say about you? Will they mention the expensive toys, extravagant gifts… or your absence from their lives? What will be written on your tombstones – the number of successful mergers and acquisitions, projects delivered, air miles totted up, or your net worth? I hope it will be more than this, I hope each one will leave a much more meaningful and lasting legacy.

I know what happened when my father passed on. He didn’t leave a will. He bequeathed us no material possessions. But I can proudly proclaim that he left us, as a family, a rich legacy of service, leadership, integrity, and courage in standing up for beliefs, principles, values and the truth, regardless of personal consequences. His life can be measured by the difference he made, to his family and to his children, to our broader family, to his community, and to his areas of passion, namely culture, education and sport.

My challenge, in responding to Prof Christensen’s question, is how will I measure my life, what value will I add to my children, my wife Sva, my community, the teams I lead, our continent and the world? Will I leave all these better than how I found them? I hope and pray that my life will not be measured by shallow metrics such as net worth, material possessions, titles held or assets owned, I hope it will be a much more balanced scorecard. How will you, measure your life?

As you think about your future in terms of what you would want to achieve and how you would define your success; I urge you to always allow yourself moments of deep reflection. At those moments, I hope you will allow the intrusion of that soul searching question, ” How will you measure your life?”

2. Will you heed the Daedalus advice?

In the same lecture, Professor Christensen shared with us the painful stories of his former classmates who were now either divorced, not in touch with their children, or involved in corruption or scandal or are in jail because of the forces and temptations that come with high corporate office. He further counseled us that understanding what trapped some of his classmates is important; not just for those who have left the path that they planned to follow, but also for those whose lives are still on track and for those whose journeys are just beginning.

This is especially important for those of you that will graduate with an MBA or PDBA, from now on; you are going to be in demand, within your organizations and outside them. Prestige, new positions, perks, new roles, fame and fortune beckon. Graduating as an MBA or PDBA has vastly improved your chances of being tapped for the top jobs and being offered the opportunities that you all hope for.

Professor Christensen tempers our excitement with a warning: “We are all vulnerable to the forces and decisions that have derailed many.” This brings me to the lessons from an ancient Greek tale:

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, there was a brilliant inventor, Daedalus. He had angered King Minos, the ruler of the island of Crete, and was imprisoned on the island. Desperate to flee the island, Daedalus used wax to build some wings for himself and his son, Icarus. Daedalus warned his son to fly at mid-height as the seawater would dampen the wings and the sun would melt them.

Icarus heeded his father’s advice for a while, but then, as he soared higher and higher, he felt free. He felt he could fly higher than the birds. He was feeling so free and so savouring having so much power, fun and freedom that he ignored his father’s warning and flew close to the sun. As his father had warned, his wings melted, and Icarus plummeted into the sea and drowned, to his father’s sorrow. 

Tonight I am here to whisper to you, to give you some Daedalus advice, I do so because of what has happened to some who were as successful before you. Some of those who came before you, who succeeded before you unfortunately succumbed to either greed, hubris, corruption, power and dishonesty.

It is not because those who failed were never given advice – they failed to heed it. We may have occasionally given them a Daedalus piece of advice, but the power, the glory and the material rewards of high office or wealth often drowned out our feeble attempts to keep them grounded. Then the inevitable happens, a crash, a fall from grace… society’s admiration turns to scorn; friends and family who used to bask in their limelight now hide from the searchlight of public scrutiny.

We ask ourselves how this could happen to Craig, Marietjie, Indira, Quinton, Johan, Cheng, Jane, Saras, Bradley, Koos, Sipho, Munyarazi or Matsepo. They had a great future ahead of them; they had a great upbringing! The reality is, it can happen to everyone, it happened to them, it can happen to you.

In the wise words of Prof Bill George, “Leaders who lose their way are not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths. Very few people go into leadership roles to cheat, to do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded.”

None of the people we produce at universities, or we celebrate and groom at our corporates or appoint as public servants or elect as political leaders are necessarily born evil; but they unfortunately, like you and me, have in themselves the capacity for actions that they may later regret.

As we daily read the headlines trumpeting the fall of the mighty, the promising, the achievers, what is our response? Beyond the initial disbelief, followed by denial, later followed by blaming the media or the intentions of others, what are we doing to prepare you, our Rising Stars and Awesome Talent not to fly too low, lest your wings be dampened, nor to fly too high, lest your wings melt? How do we make sure that you avoid the fate of young Icarus? 

As the saying goes, you cannot lead others until you lead yourself. However, it is near impossible to lead yourself if you do not know yourself. The great motto emblazoned on Greece’s Oracle of Delphi says, “Know thyself”. It means you should know your own weaknesses, mortality, frailties, limitations, errors, flaws and shortcomings. 

In the sphere of leadership, this means being wary of hubris, or pride. Our greatest mistakes and flaws are often exposed at our moments of greatest triumph. It is at this point of high altitude, in the true “death zone” of leadership, that we lose our knowledge of ourselves and become arrogant and self-serving, committing acts that may bring about our downfall from the highest peaks of adulation and admiration. 

As we progress, as glory, fame and fortune beckon, it is increasingly difficult, but absolutely, critically important, to remain grounded in “knowing thyself”. That is the oxygen of leadership survival in the dreaded “death zone”. 

Throughout my life, my father played the role of Daedalus, occasionally scolding, advising, or inspiring, always teaching me what true leadership was about. There were many times he held me back – I now know it was for my own good. There were times he pushed me too hard – now appreciate he did it because he had my interests at heart.

While ruling Rome, Marcus Aurelius was concerned he might let his power go to his head. As legend has it, Aurelius hired a servant to literally follow him around as he walked the empire’s streets. Every time a citizen bowed a knee or called out a word of praise, Marcus Aurelius instructed the servant to whisper this reminder in his ear: “You’re just a man. You’re just a man.” We all need those voices that whisper to us, that tell us what we may not want to hear, that ensure our fidelity to principles and values and that always make sure that the role and mission is more important than the position or personal ego. 

I urge each one of you to have a Council of Advisors around you. These are the discreet people who listen without broadcasting your troubles and failures; they are the wise counsellors who temper your enthusiasm with a dose of realism and constantly, yet gently, remind you that you are a mere mortal with great flaws and weaknesses. In my own life, my beloved wife, Sva, has been the Chairperson of my Council of Advisors for over 28 years together, giving both solicited and mostly unsolicited advice in my personal, professional and spiritual life. She and other advisors (some are friends, others are family members, while others are colleagues) have kept me grounded and pointed towards my True North.

After my speech tonight, I will go home to my father’s house, at 10097 Duna Street, KwaZakhele township. There I will have a meal that my mother prepared, regardless of how much good food I’ve had here – there will be a second helping, regardless of how full I may be. From there my Mother will inquire about my wife and children, when last I went to church, how I conduct myself at work and in society. The conversation will then move to her ailments, issues around our home, our broader family and the community at large. This has been part of my life, this grounds me, this defines me and this centres me. No fancy titles held, no high honours bestowed nor wealth accumulated could change who I am because it was instilled, by those Daedalus words in me since I was a mere teenager … fly at mid-height as the seawater would dampen the wings and the sun would melt them.

3. Nelson Mandela: His footsteps, your pathway

A couple of years ago I saw an advert with Madiba’s face in a magazine in Angola, these words jumped out at me, “Obrigado, Madiba. As tuas ideias ficarao sempre conossco. A simple translation “Thank you Madiba, your ideas will always be with us”. It goes further to say, Há ideias que unem e ideias que dividem. As tuas uniram um povo, criaram uma nação, orgulharam um continente, conquistaram o mundo. Obrigado, Mabida. Ficarás sempre connosco ensinando-nos  sonhar o impossível”. Simply, but powerfully stated, “There are ideas that unite, and ideas that divide, yours created a nation, gave pride to a Continent, and conquered the world. Thank you Madiba, you will always be with us, teaching us to dream the impossible dream.” 

What drove this Angolan company to honor Madiba, what moved the British to celebrate his life at Westminster Abbey, what inspired the whole Continent to declare days of mourning for Madiba, what touched the world so much about this African giant? What made Madiba unique, what made millions of South Africans to spontaneously break into song….“Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Akakho ofana naye…Hao ya tswanang le yena…( There is no one like you…)”

The answer lies in the true essence of leadership, which has more to do with the behaviors of a leader and less to do with the position he/she occupies. In Madiba’s case, it is consistent and principled behaviors that connected him to people, inspired millions and made him so loved and appreciated here at home and abroad until his death.

In the words of Kouzes & Posner:

“… Each leader, or potential leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. This requires us as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behavior and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be in how exalted we may be; how elevated our positions are, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we can 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 simple yet profound description of true leadership clearly goes far beyond the leader’s position, and outlines a set of behaviors expected of a true leader and most importantly, the noble and pure motives that should propel such behavior. In examining Madiba’s life, one can immediately see how his consistent and sincere behaviors connected him to all of us

As students and graduates of the Nelson Mandela Business School, you will be expected to follow in his footsteps. The mere mention of your university and Alma Mater will make you to always be viewed with a Nelson Mandela lens. This you may see as being unfair, but unfortunately, the name Nelson Mandela will always raise expectation. You will be expected to live up to the ideals, values and attributes of Madiba.

I know that attaining these and other attributes and values may seem daunting to even the most optimistic of you. You may feel that this long walk is beyond you; that you may never measure up to the high standard set by Madiba. President Obama’s Mandela eulogy reassures all of us that Madiba was no saint, nor a bust made of marble. Like all of us, he was a mere mortal with victories and failures. Pres Obama argues that it was through the power of actions and ideas, large and small, that he moved “a nation towards justice and in the process moved billions around the world.” Obama challenges us to go beyond the mourning and celebration to self-reflection about how we will continue his legacy.

It is your individual and collective duty to perpetuate Madiba’s legacy of leadership for the benefit of future generations. Doing so will build a lasting non-physical monument to rival the great pyramids of Egypt; the timeless Timbuktu and the Djenné manuscripts in Mali.

Some of you may say what Madiba has accomplished is too great, some of you may claim that you are not in leadership positions, yet some of you may consider the sacrifices required to be too great. I hope I can gently persuade you that each one of us can take steps to lead the Madiba way in our areas of influence. Leadership, ladies and gentlemen, is not the preserve of a few; it is not a position held or a title bestowed; it is, as Professor Jonathan Jansen rightly says, “an influence that is felt”. The greatest monument we can build for Madiba is in how we live our lives every day, based on the lessons we have learned from him, and the things we admire in him.

As we reflect on these lessons, as we evaluate how far we have to go to reach the bar he has set, as we realize the changes required in our behavior, in our actions and our mind-set, the temptation will surely come to look elsewhere and judge other leaders, criticize them, compare them to Madiba. This is the easy route to take, but each step along it will be a step away from his pathway. His pathway demands that you take your own steps, that you set the example and, like him, stay the course, no matter how difficult it may be.

It may also be tempting to take only those parts of Madiba’s legacy that suit our current circumstances and jettison those that are more onerous. Again, that would be a terrible misstep. It would not reflect Madiba’s completeness as a leader. We have to walk the full mile, embrace all aspects of his leadership lesson. It may be enticing for some of you to seduce our followers by using charisma in the way Madiba did. Unfortunately, if your inner core, your value system and your convictions are unlike Madiba’s, your followers will see through the charade. Words matter, but actions, results and character matter much more. You must remain true to his long walk every step of the way.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as your footsteps turn into a confident stride, you will have to be more vigilant. It is the allure of power, the trappings of high office, the arrogance of incumbency and the entitlement that comes from the benefits of your positions that may derail you. Or it may be the negative influence of those who suddenly surround you and the insensitivity and callousness that comes with wealth and privilege that may trip you up.

Lastly, as you walk this path and make some progress, you must guard against claiming his legacy for yourselves exclusively. You should never dare to claim his name as a badge. It must be our consistent, selfless, empowering and inspiring actions – every day, towards everyone – that one day convinces our followers or subordinates that we are worthy of the Madiba legacy.

A final word of caution: We must not be Madiba; we must be our authentic selves, using Madiba’s lessons to become even better versions of ourselves, not poor imitations of the great man. In 2003, Professor Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, challenged a new generation to lead authentically. According to him, “authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.”

Let us retrace Madiba’s footsteps, matching our tiny footprints to his giant ones on our quest for true and genuine leadership. In this way, we may just become the leaders that our teams, followers or supporters yearn for and richly deserve.

4. The role of business in creating shared prosperity

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the largest part of the population suffering from unemployment, poverty and under-development. The latest Stats SA report on poverty reveals that more South Africans are slumping into poverty, reversing gains since 2011. If one were to overlay this with racial, gender and youth dynamics, then you have a huge challenge facing us. If the people in the Middle East had a case to be aggrieved, or if the people of Britain voted against the status quo, or if the anger and frustration propelled Trump to power in the USA, how much resentment, anger and a brewing frustration do we individually and collectively think there is in here in South Africa? Do we, as those who are in fortunate positions of economic and political power, understand this, are we able to see the warning lights, do we have the finger on the pulse of our society?

I would argue that we are unfortunately caught in a trap – as individuals, as corporates and as leaders – we know what needs to be done, we appreciate how difficult it will be, we dread how long it will take, we are wary of the drain on resources and the time required to make this really work. I would argue that the government (or the ruling party) finds itself in the same trap, albeit for different reasons.

The harsh reality is that these are our challenges, our common problems. This is our country, and each of us (economic elites or political elites) has to play a role in rebuilding this society.

The challenges we face are enormous; the path ahead is long and arduous, but as seductive as they may seem, shortcuts are not the answer.

All over the world, capitalism and the free market system are under siege. In recent years, business has increasingly been viewed as a major cause of social, environmental, and economic problems. Companies are widely perceived to be prospering at the expense of the broader community.

Professors Michael Porter and Richard Kramer argue that a huge part of the problem lies with companies themselves, because they remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation, which has emerged over the past few decades. They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimising short-term financial performance while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their long-term success.

According to Porter and Kramer, the solution lies in the principle of what they term “shared value”, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. It requires business to reconnect company success with social progress.

However, Porter and Kramer are adamant that shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not only on the margins of what companies do, but at the centre of it.

In the words of James Kouzes and Barry Posner: Change is the province of leaders. It is the work of leaders to inspire people to do things differently, to struggle against uncertain odds, and to persevere towards a misty image of a better future. Without leadership, there would not be the extraordinary efforts to solve existing problems and realise unimagined opportunities.

South Africa needs all leaders to commit to joint prosperity for all our people –everyone is harmed in the long run if income and asset inequality remains too high. Indeed, the plain fact of the matter is that too much inequality is morally and economically bad.

It is very important for Business (small, medium and large) to fully appreciate that its commercial interests are closely aligned with the performance of the South African economy as a whole. Business’s long run commercial interests therefore depend on two core variables:

  • The quality of the institutions responsible for governance and regulation of the business and operating environment,

  • The rapid growth and transformation of the South African economy, to ensure a far more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

The owners, shareholders and other stakeholders in business want precisely what most South Africans want – a much more prosperous and more equitable society.

What therefore needs to be done?

South Africa is at an inflection point, there are stark choices facing us, to either be a failed state or to create prosperity for more rather than less. There are competing views within each organization, among industries, within government and among members of civil society. There are those who believe that nothing has happened or been done to address poverty and underdevelopment in the 2 decades of freedom; others argue that we should now move on from the apartheid past and should allow the markets to solve our current challenges. I disagree with both these views, I think that so much has been done to address our challenges, but much more needs to be done. In order for us to succeed, we need the following key changes: 

  • We require leaders of corporates to accept that their business interests are better served in a peaceful and prosperous South Africa. This requires corporate South Africa to be fully engaged in finding mutually beneficial solutions and not stand on the side lines. This requires each company, industry or the broader private sector to find the most creative ways to play its role to create prosperity for more rather than less. 
  • This requires the government to do the following: create a conducive climate for investment and business success; build sound partnerships with the private sector to address South Africa’s socio-economic challenges and take drastic steps to address the issues raised by rating agencies so that we grow the economy.
  • Corruption, nepotism, price fixing, collusion, fronting, bribery, and uncompetitive behaviour all contribute to more pain for the poor, weak investment prospects for businesses and a threat to jobs; all of us must strive towards a values driven society. 
  • We need to mobilize, entice and incentivize some of the best brains; some of our entrepreneurs, students and academics to come up with the most creative ways to create jobs, solve socio economic challenges and solutions to take advantage of technology and some of our inherent advantages such as Tourism. 

We are producing highly qualified graduates, we have competent and skilled people and have some amazing retired, semi-retired, or seasoned former senior executives such as Sizwe Nxasana, Ruell Khoza, Jaco Maree, Brand Pretorius, Irene Charneley, Michael Jordan, Pam Golding, Saki Macozoma, Gill Marcus, Whitey Basson, Gloria Serobe, Sipho Nkosi, Wendy Appelbaum, Phutuma Nhleko, Wendy Luhabe, to mention just a few. There is therefore no reason, whatsoever, for us to continue to employ or “deploy” unsuitable and unqualified politically connected in our most precious state owned enterprises. With enough foresight we could pick amazing executives and highly experienced non-executive director’s/board members to these state owned enterprises and government agencies to drive economic growth and deliver much needed services to the people of South Africa. In this way, our graduates, both Black and White; our executives who further develop their skills in programmes like the MBA and PDBA can join such state owned enterprises and make a meaningful contribution. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it is not labels, slogans and insults that will take us forward; it is new ideas, new partnerships and new solutions from a range of stakeholders. I am very excited by the bold and imaginative step taken by Business Leadership South Africa, called “Contract SA”. Under this bold plan, unveiled by its inspirational leader, Mr Bonang Mohale, Business Leadership South Africa aims to:

  • Create jobs and grow the economy;
  • Promote Black Leadership;
  • Invest in South Africans;
  • Invest in Communities;
  • Support Small businesses, and
  • Root out corruption, particularly in its own ranks.

In such a context, the Nelson Mandela Business School, its Faculty Members, its Alumni, and the MBA and PDBA students have to re-examine how they can play a role in making “Contract SA” to succeed.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the words of the late Judge Arthur Chaskalson, what is demanded of all South Africans is: “that we commit ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to the transformation that has to take place. This calls for more than pious statements or resolutions at the end of a conference (it means) seeking solutions and not recrimination. Pragmatically this is what we have to do; ethically, this is what we are obliged to do, and in good conscience we can do no less.”

If we successfully navigate this difficult path, then we have a hope of making Mandela’s dream society come true for our children and future generations. Should we fail, then we would have no-one else to blame as our country slides back into strife, conflict and racial hatred. These are our stark choices.

I thought I would conclude with words I wrote at our 20th year of democracy:

We dare not fail

Ladies and Gentlemen, our journey will be long and hard, it may proceed in fits and starts, it may surprise us with sharp bends, it may contain steep inclines and dangerous obstacles. Whatever we encounter along the way, we must stay the course, together, more united and clearer about the glorious future that beckons. Bound together by a common destiny, glued to one another by a common history and marching in step towards the next 20 years, we must seek a shared prosperity.

Yes, we are heading into uncharted territory, confronting contending theories and attempting to reconcile competing needs. As we do so, we must challenge ourselves and each other to move away from narrow, sometimes selfish or sectoral, interests and agendas. We must hold one another accountable for moving out of our current paradigms and comfort zones to put the national interest at the top of the agenda. But we have chosen the way less travelled before, so why should we shrink away from placing our country, our children’s future and our common destiny first?

As we face the next 20 years, let us regain the great promise we held for the world, let us reclaim the status we had among the nations of the world; let us create a nation that all of us can be proud of. May each one of us find their colour in our rainbow, may more of our people find a place at our prosperity table and may all our people see themselves in the picture of the future we are creating. Our country’s beauty will be enhanced when we share it; its riches will be preserved if more benefit from them and our flag will fly higher when more pay allegiance to it. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, let us not exclude anyone; let us not leave anyone behind; let us make everyone feel a sense of belonging, pride, love and loyalty.

We are proudly South African. We dare not fail!

I thank you


  1. Christensen, C, Allworth, J and Dillon, K, 2012, “How will you measure your life?”, First edition
  1. George, B, 2011, “Why leaders lose their way”
  1. Kouzes, J and Posner, B, 2003, ” The Leadership Challenge”
  1. Obama, B, 10 Dec 2013, “US President Barack Obama’s speech at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service”
  1. George, B, 2003, “Authentic Leadership” 
  1. Porter, E.M, Kramer, R.M, 2011, “Creating shared value”, Harvard Business Review
  1. Contract SA, 2017, Business Leadership South Africa 
  1. Mali, L, 2014, “Creating shared prosperity is our challenge”, https://leadershipconversations.co.za/creating-shared-prosperity-is-our-challenge