How to translate the ubuntu philosophy into the leadership space.
Ubuntu introduces the premise that good business can be achieved in parallel with doing good in the community, in the industry that businesses operate and within the country. Most importantly, we have to consider what we can take from Ubuntu in terms of how best to lead our people within our organisation – our community of employees. The final Leadership Foresight Webinar Series explored the magic of the authentically African, Ubuntu philosophy. We’re all in this together: how to translate the ubuntu philosophy into the leadership space was facilitated by Dr. Natasha Winkler-Titus, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour and leadership at Stellenbosch Business School. Conversationalists included Dr. Joy Ntetha, the Chief Visionary Officer and healer at the Nomanlanga Tribe, Simon Peters, Head of Community and Special Projects at Yebo Fresh, Yesthiel Singh, General Council and Company Secretary at IQ Business, South Africa.
Understanding Ubuntu is best expressed by saying, “I am because of who we all are.” Ubuntu, as a philosophy, is indigenous to the African people. Research towards this is diverse, covering all aspects, such as comparing different indigenous epistemologies, what we know about how indigenous perspectives as infused management theory, and also the influence of colonisation on current-day interactions. Ubuntu’s philosophy is at the centre of how organisations can evolve into more inclusive and purpose-driven corporations. Within this philosophy comes Ubuntu-driven leadership. Dr. Winkler-Titus reminded us that humans are social, multi-faceted beings – far more so than the Western, individualist approaches have traditionally portrayed. As such, it is our responsibility as Africans to operationalise the Ubuntu philosophy toward more responsible leadership and also how to conceptualise it in more positive social capitalism. Dr. Ntetha recounted, “I was one of those people, not too long ago, that was this global scholar from Africa that went out there to find the best leadership development practices and solutions. And, as Africans, there’s almost this conditioning that the first world will have these solutions. You go out there and that’s where you get these amazing solutions. But what I found was that there is a paradigm shift taking place. Ubuntu is at the forefront of this shift. It is talked about globally where business is moving away from a very individualistic paradigm as we see how volatile, uncertain and unpredictably complex the world is becoming.” “In 2016, I was in Edinborough, Scotland, and there was a discussion about this “post-heroic shift”, and I thought to myself that this sounds awfully familiar to the wisdom that I’ve heard at home around a leadership that is more collaborative, a leadership that is shared, a leadership that is distributed, that is also looking at the follower in the context. It’s about finding a way of interconnectedness. To connect to that form of responsible leadership is actually a combination of your personal self-leadership, which you shape and which is shaped by your context, together with the process of it collectively becoming something that multiple people come together for.” “Instead of looking outside of ourselves for solutions, we actually need to come back to the wisdom that is inherently from the soil of where we come from. That already sets a much more capacious tone in us talking about Ubuntu, not only as an exclusive exotic thing that is ours but as something that already is embedded in the direction of new business leadership and philosophy. We continuously look at the global north for answers and for guidance, and we forget that we are actually the founders of humanity right here.”
Simon expressed that he resonated with that too, as he said, “Coming from the cold north myself, I now find myself at the tip of Africa and feel wholly at home. Especially coming from an entrepreneurial background, I think that is typical that you need to grin and bear it, and get through the pain – because no one else is going to do it for you. But often that’s the journey to burnout and destruction. I believe that the concept of “I see you” is at the core of Ubuntu, because I’m not just seeing myself and what’s in it for me. You begin to think about how to help each other, what one another’s struggles are, what your own experience is and how you can come together with one another. That’s very freeing because it takes the weight off of me doing everything on my own, which is unsustainable. It also brings fullness and light to things. Although I may not have had previous experience in that area, I’ve learned as a creative thinker that my mind is broadened by seeing your perspective, your background and your lived experience. It opens up possibilities.” Yesthiel commented, “When we embrace our Africanism principles like Ubuntu and Thuma Mina effectively, they differentiate us from our international counterparts. This is something that is coming more and more to the forefront, especially post-COVID, where people were so focused on just profits before. We are now going back to the human element, back to the community element because we’ve had some time to do a lot of introspection. We realise that if we are to survive, it is through community and by supporting each other. As responsible leaders, we need to re-look at what our organisation’s values are, and if that aligns with our purpose? Are we a purpose-led organisation or are we a profit-led organisation? And how do we balance those?”
“We are shifting towards a very human focus coming through from the corporate world. There is more focus on employees, the broader community, and creating ecosystems to support each other. If we can do that effectively from a community perspective, we all benefit. We will grow South Africa, we will grow Africa, and we will grow each other.” While we care for one another, we also hold each other accountable within Ubuntu. As we do good, we do so in a sustainable way so that we can take care of future generations. We need to fuse communalism with accountability. Yesthiel continued, “This is something that is seen within the BEE policies, and can be further integrated into organisation’s approaches. As an example, at my organisation, we have our formula for success, which is our values coupled with a set of behaviours that dictate everything we do. In there, we talk about the core behaviours and elements of focus, which not just leadership, but the entire business needs to take into consideration in the actions that they’re doing. This extends to the broader community, whether it’s with our partners, our employees and our duty of care to each other. This helps us to keep Ubuntu, community, respect and dignity at the forefront. We measured it in terms of the data and from an accountability perspective.”
Dr Ntetha added, “As interveners within corporations, we can offer guidance and standards for accountability going forward, while also shifting our own interventions towards Ubuntu. We don’t want them to only stay at the macro “tick box” level, we need to infuse belonging within these spaces. In this way, responsible leadership becomes further embodied at a very personal, mastery type of level. When we think about the Thuma Mina concept, it becomes so vast. But what we need to do is to go back to the individual. Look within your own sphere of influence and see how you can rehumanise your business.” This move from profit towards Ubuntu can be practical as a business model, added Simon. “The core of positioning of a for-profit business to attack key social issues is to have purpose and mission. In true business terms, you would want your vision and mission to be aligned with the whole of the business. That should interrogate every decision you make. It should set the culture for the business. With these, you’ve basically got a plum line for how we do things around here. That can be outward-looking, and that could be inward-looking. That’s how you treat your staff and that’s how you treat your customers. It’s how you make strategic decisions. If you haven’t thought about your vision and your mission as an organisation or recently made them more relevant, or disregard them then you lose track very easily. Within business, we all get distracted, but we all have choices to make. So when you have a good, solid, purpose-driven mission and vision that you can keep coming back to and directing employees to, then that’s a great step towards driving you in the right direction.”
Dr. Ntetha agreed, adding, “In the business world there is a contrast between the model that we are so used to within decision-making and Ubuntu. Conventionally, business is individualistic and fast-paced, yet Ubuntu urges us to slow down and make collective decisions. Sometimes the issue comes when you think that you are separate from the collective, or from what’s out there. In the past years, it has become clear that this is not the case. What’s happening in the outside world is also going to affect me, and I am going to affect what goes on out there.” “The revolution really starts internally. The human is always in context. For instance, in our parents’ generation, English names needed to be used to be more palatable for the corporate space. Now there’s a shift in acknowledging language and context and how to pronounce names. This is something that’s adopted even globally. When you look on LinkedIn now, it guides you with a prompt, “This is how you pronounce my name.” These evolutionary things that we infuse into the system contextually are also significant, and it can extend even into leadership enabling others to lead so that we start to lead together. Including other people in the leadership practice, means that you give people the resources and the power that’s needed to affect change and influence decisions within those spaces.” “We see this form of collaboration arise as competitors are supporting each other, sharing knowledge and experiences with each other to have better business and better business practices. This is something that involves leadership being brave, brave enough to sit with their competitor and say can we compete or team up and collaborate as a community within our particular industry. This takes a certain amount of vulnerability too. But leading through Ubuntu you end up having people who follow their leaders by choice, not because of title.” Responsible leadership promotes the idea that the influencing power of leadership should reach beyond a single organisation, toward improving society, and the world – highlighting people, profit and planet. It’s not one or the other, rather it is the combination of the three that brings about organisational success. Responsible leadership is deeper than just a role. It represents some form of agency that gives meaning to what is responsible, but also what is possible. Evolution happens by going back to our Ubuntu roots as leaders within the modern-day African context. And, as we return to our continent’s indigenous ways, we are going back to who we are as humanity too – infusing the philosophy of Ubuntu into our business and leadership practices.
The Leadership Foresight Webinar Series is presented by SBS Executive Development in collaboration with the Stellenbosch Business School Alumni Association. This free, live series takes place over the course of four events, facilitated by heavy-weight subject matter experts and consultants, with contributions from panels of subject matter experts and industry leaders. Guests from across the African continent and abroad speak about the past, present, and future focus of leadership in Africa. The recording of this final event, “We’re all in this Together”, facilitated by Dr. Natasha Winkler-Titus, is available here. The previous events can be viewed on YouTube here.