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Ubuntu: Key to leading in our VUCA world

Updated: Mar 21

I am because we are - a person is a person through persons

An interview: Africa Leadership Transformation (ALT) Foundation's Founder and CEO, Daniel Kamanga, shares the strength an Ubuntu philosophy and style brings to leadership, organizations and the world community.

Image source: Daniel Thürler (@drivemyart) | Unsplash Photo Community

While the literal definition of Ubuntu is "humanity" in the Nguni Bantu language, it is often translated as, “I am, because we are” or “I am because you are.”

Toni: The word Ubuntu, perhaps most famously used in a speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, shows up as a concept in a variety of article topics around humanist and leadership philosophy. It has even been adopted as the name of an open-source software. Can you tell me a little bit about the original roots and meaning of Ubuntu?

Daniel: The best way to explain this is through a isiXhosa proverb which says, umuntu gumuntu ngabantu (“a person is a person through other persons”). The original root of the word ubuntu is that an individual cannot exist on their own. You are given being by others and your actions affects others.

This is behind the thinking that even a child does not merely belong to its parents. It’s the source of the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Common in most African cultures was for an uncle or a stranger to discipline a naughty child. If the parents learned of this, they were glad an adult contributed to raising a well-behaved child.

How do you see the usage or definition changed in modern times, if at all?

Colonization wreaked havoc to the African way of life. In their bid to divide and conquer, colonizers promoted some African people above their own. Today, many of those who are now “privileged”—or economically well-off—look down upon others.

Westernization and capitalism's individualistic culture are now common; many Africans believe that you should be rewarded for your hard work and you can be separate from the whole. At another level, whether it has an effect on others or not, mining companies, for example, pollute rivers and the atmosphere, disregarding their workers who drink the toxic water and breath the polluted air. Their contribution by way of jobs and taxes seems to exempt them from the thinking that they are given being by the communities where the mines are located.

Over time, Ubuntu was made to look like socialism or communism, which were going out of vogue. It’s only in recent years that this concept is finding itself in socio-political discourse.

ALT Foundation holds a vision to transform leadership as a key driver of an Africa that works for everyone. I understand ALT executes this in its mission to bring transformative leadership programs to a huge and diverse group of leaders through universities in African countries. How does Ubuntu fit into ALT’s training programs?

We posit that where Africa is not working, leadership is the culprit. We are not naïve. Our focus on leadership transformation as the key to an Africa that works for everyone doesn’t ignore the myriad other problems on the continent. We acknowledge the need to work with partners; this allows for a systems’ thinking, or whole-room-approach that identifies the obvious and underlying drivers of the challenges we need to deal with.

The ubuntu way of being is your insurance against the unknown, the unseen.

As the ALT Foundation, we bring a leadership transformation lens. We want to know how leadership failure has contributed to the challenges facing Africa.

In our view, leadership is not positional; we are interested in the way of being of individuals as well as communities. We seek to go beneath the individual or collective resignation. We want to interrogate the communities’ expectation of a glorious future. What is the architecture of this? What needs to be dealt with? What needs to be amplified?

Ubuntu is at the centre of our intervention. We don’t come with answers. Our contribution is helping the individuals and the communities undertake a personal or collective inquiry. To do this effectively, there must be deep connections. This is Ubuntu at work. Without Ubuntu—as a lived experience—we end up like other leadership programs. The more things change, the more they remain the same. People know more about leadership, but they remain the same.

What are your own beliefs around how the Ubuntu way can be impactful for Africa, for our shared world?

At the heart of Ubuntu is equity. Every human being wants to be seen, to be heard. This is not an African conversation, it’s happening globally. People feel unheard. In the conversation between the developed and the developing world, the developing world feels unheard, unseen. There’s a high cost to this. Perhaps the immigration challenge—where Africans move to developed countries—is an Ubuntu challenge. Is it possible not to share global resources and nobody is affected?

At the time of writing this, South Africa is experiencing social unrest. People have been looting and burning malls and other businesses. One assumption is that they are angry at the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma. While we can’t justify lawlessness, there’s consensus that there is something deeper here. The poor feel unheard and disrespected. You can’t treat human beings as if they don’t exist and not expect a reaction.

The beauty of Ubuntu is like listening without judgement until people feel heard, respected, and acknowledged. You may not give them answers to the challenges they face, but at least acknowledge them. There is a cost to communities not being unheard. In terms of businesses, countries or whole societies, being listened to requires platforms and systems; this is critical whether we are speaking about racial and gender equity or equal pay transparency and acknowledging the contribution of everyone. You can bring the police and army to quell the unrest, does this mean the issue is resolved? Equally, you can pass this or that company policy or law, if people are unheard and unseen, the wound continues to fester.

Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or rights of minorities in Australia or Canada, humans want to be fully expressed. If we can begin a whole space tourism conversation, surely, we can find a way to listen to each other. And this is how the philosophy Ubuntu can help nationally and internationally.

How has your journey as a leader been informed by Ubuntu and how has it shaped how you “be” as a leader?

I grew up in a large family. I therefore experienced a microcosm of what it is like when Ubuntu works and when it doesn’t work. In a small way, my early life taught me that my actions affect others, even when not obvious. My personal default is to consider the impact of my actions on others. It’s easy for me to include others in decision-making. I get it that there is time to make a decision and “go for it,” but my default is: “How does this affect others?”

What are a few ways that you might suggest to emerging and evolving leaders to bring Ubuntu into their way of being a leader?

Human beings often go about life thinking that they know all there is to know, while the reality is we know very little. Most of life is unknown. The Ubuntu leadership style helps us get comfortable with the unknown, the ambiguous.

The Ubuntu leadership style demands that you draw in the perspective of others. Ubuntu leadership demands the internal discipline of not moving forward until you get the input of others. Even when you think you have considered everything, there is always a perspective that can torpedo your decision or can make it better.

The Ubuntu way of being is your insurance against the unknown, the unseen. You may not completely get it, but by including others, you create the context for company or community-wide support, especially when you get it wrong. And we are more likely to get it right—or “righter”—together as "we are".


Learn more about Daniel and the ALT Foundation team and their work here:

Author: Toni Crow, CEC PCC PQC, Toni Crow Leadership Coaching

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