Reviewer: Rolland Simpi Motaung
Author: Bonang Mohale
Title: Behold the Turtle- Thoughts on Ethically Principled Leadership
Publishers: Tracy McDonalds (2021)
The uncontrolled passion and spiritual upliftment I get when Professor Bonang Mohale speaks is undeniable. Resembling a preacher on a Sunday morning Mohale vibrates the heavens with every profound verse attired. From corporate pulpits and media platforms, he commands respect from anyone witnessing his showmanship. However have we not heard the sermon before?
Although packed with quotable moments, prose and ideas, Behold the Turtle- Thoughts on Ethically Principled Leadership has similar themes to his previous book- Lift as You Rise- Speeches and Thoughts on Leadership (2018).
Evidently, leadership is the common denominator found in both offerings. What however makes this latest book majorly different are the sermons made from a Covid-19 pandemic context, what the author refers to as the “better normal” or “corona-coaster”.
What the book is about?
Borrowing the book title from the proverb- “Behold the turtle- he only makes progress when his neck is stuck out”, this tome is a resounding call to all those in leadership positions to reconfigure and affirm their ethical values. Mohale invokes the notion that we can only make transformational progress when we stick our necks out in defence of our young adult democracy from corrupted public sector officials and unethical corporate practices. No matter how slow the progress may be the aim is to keep moving forward to bring much-needed change through unquestionable ethical leadership.
Behold the Turtle is in essence a compilation of Mohale’s previous prolific articles, speeches, letters, tributes, and thoughts on leadership. Insightful testimonials penned by leading South Africans from academia and the corporate world are also included. Leaders such as Adrian Gore, Mteto Nyathi and Vukani Mngxati share their thoughts on their personal engagements with the author and his leadership qualities. The book is well divided into 10 parts-with bite-size chapters exploring themes such as leadership, education, ethics, and inclusivity under the Covid-19 pandemic context.
At first glance, the size of the book may seem intimidating yet it is quite manageable-like eating a big bowl of fruit salad the chapters are easily snackable.
Mohale’s leadership brilliance is seen through the phenomenal succession planning during his tenure at Business Leadership South Africa as indicated in the book. In taking up the CEO role in the organisation, one of his aims was to find a successor after the completion of his term. Busisiwe Mavuso was the person identified. This aligned with his transformation values of having more black African women in top management positions within private and public sectors. Mohale believes that women contribute a 360-degree perspective on how companies operate inside societies rooted in empathy, and that such leadership qualities shouldn’t be denounced as weak or emotional. He argues that women are great leaders- if not greater than men- and should have space at the proverbial table.
The author challenges the patriarchy within the corporate sector to rethink its stance on gender equality. “Men should shoulder blame for the barriers holding back women. For gender equality and pay parity to take hold in South Africa and globally, men must be at the forefront because they are beneficiaries of centuries of patriarchy”, the author states.
Leaders making the mental wellness of employees a priority
Leadership qualities such as emotional intelligence shouldn’t be only associated with female managers, but a necessary human quality especially now in a pandemic environment. The book prompts leaders to be more understanding of their employees’ situations, particularly concerning mental illness and wellness. The book advocates for a “comprehensive multi-sectoral suicide prevention strategy” in response to people’s mental health issues that have especially been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Leaders must be respectful, visible, supportive, understanding and felt by our employees. We need to find ways to increase the feeling of connection and caring” the author states. Essentially there must be a purpose-driven and people-centric approach to business above the relentless pursuit of profits even post-pandemic. Sadly the author fails to provide footnote references for some of the figures stated concerning suicide in the chapter. Such references could be valuable for readers to gain further insights into mental illness and wellness.
Missed opportunities of the book
It’s these missed opportunities and more that are scattered across the book. The author offers compelling arguments but mostly fails to provide accurate references and sources for most of the facts, statistics and evidence argued. I found it rather hard to not be too critical as the author is passionate about education. Professor Mohale was recently offered a full professorship at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) College of Business and Economics to teach global MBA students as mentioned in the book.
As my lecturers constantly shout from the roof- and I to our students- academia dictates backing up of arguments with referenced research. As a chancellor of the University of the Free State, the author ought to be fully aware of such expectations. Citations were inconsistent and even non-existent in some chapters of the book. The expectation is further brought from a few testimonials in the book that emphasized the author’s passion for data and timely statistics.
For instance, Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu Chancellor of the University of Pretoria stated that Mohale has a keen interest in facts that are scientifically proven information.
“He is very methodical and clinical in his thought processes and analysis” Prof Nkhhlu maintained. Look, no one denies Mohale’s leadership skills and the various achievements he has in corporate South Africa and now in education, however, I failed to locate the scientific approach and comprehensive analysis of facts throughout most chapters in the text.
Part Seven of the book titled Ethics and Part Sustainability-which could have been combined into one section- were the most disappointing for me. The author missed an opportunity to address timely issues on corporate corruption and state capture directly. Possible solutions in regards to unethical business practices from major companies such as KPMG, Bosasa, Trillion Capital, SAA and Bain could have been discussed instead we met with more rhetoric. There was a missed opportunity to emphasise the triple bottom line approach that big businesses could use to create a better economy.
Undoubtedly the country needs ethical leadership as the book argues and as an entrepreneur, facilitator, and father my thirst for practical solutions and case studies for ethical leadership is enormous. These pages promised to deliver in that regard however my thirst is still unabated. Lastly, there was no resounding word on how big business can support SMMEs in these trying times to rebuild the economy, thus indirectly suggesting leadership only exist in big corporates.
In regards to the question of whether public speakers thrive on stage and page, I am of the view that Mohale is a better speaker than a writer. He demands to be heard than read. On stages and media platforms Mohale speaks with unquestionable authority; however, I was not convinced that he delivers the same from a writing perspective.
Similar to Chika Onyeani’s Roar of the African Lion (2015) which didn’t live up to Capitalist Nigger (2000), Behold The Turtle also suffers from the sophomore book curse. Like seeing all your favourite musicians collaborating for an album, excited at the prospects because you have seen their live performances. But when you listen to the album you are awfully disappointed. Instead of “fresh insights and wisdom” as the book’s synopsis promises, this latest offering is rather filled with rhetorical arguments we have heard before from the other authors, political analysts, academics and the general public.
Overall, however, the undiluted optimism radiates throughout the book. To create a better normal, the author argues that some focus areas towards recovery may entail improving health and wellness; improving business efficiencies and better socio-cultural behaviour by society being more kind and caring. Family man, a servant and thought leader Bonang Mohale is a corporate preacher condemning white-collar crimes and brings heat to those hiding behind boardroom tables feeding from nation’s cookie jars. He is a veteran of corporate leadership with an unshakable passion for people development; sadly his message may not have been properly packaged and fails in delivering a timely and ground-breaking book for a pandemic world.
.Rolland Simpi Motaung is a writer and entrepreneur.