Op-Ed

Ubuntu leadership: leading for the greater good  

Nelson Mandela, on his release from prison, and for the rest of his life, showed the world how much can be gained and accomplished, in very challenging circumstances, when leadership is grounded in compassion, respect, empathy, connectedness, interdependence, and kindness.

In one of the darkest, most tumultuous, and uncertain moments in human history, he emerged as a leader, flawed but repentant, firm but graceful, pressured but determined to find the path that served the greater good and in the process, stood, and still stands, as an enduring example for the all.

At his memorial, Barack Obama stated, “There is a word in South Africa – ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small…that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.”

Leadership at its core is about influence and the creation of value. It is an undertaking measured by results, responsibility, and accountability. Sometimes a contradictory arrangement often demands selfless effort with unwritten requirements to take full credit for all that goes wrong and to lavishly share the credit for successes with others. We expect leaders to be magnanimous, to lead from the front in a principled manner, to consider the views of those they lead, and to cause that which they have the privilege of leading to be such that it serves its purpose, serves the greater good, for the many, not just a few.

An honest assessment of leadership today shows the emergence of the leaders as the center of all things, leading in a highly competitive environment, where individuality and personal gains for a narrow grouping trump the ideal of serving the greater good; the emergence of the “rockstar leader” where everything focuses on the individual, their thinking, ideas, and approaches. We often hear terms such as transformational, servant, or charismatic leader. These and others are all popularly practiced approaches that focus on characteristics of the leader without any tangible philosophical underpinnings, generally accepted principles, or concepts, to truly assess performance.

Executed well, they all have the ability to deliver value. However, in an assessment of their pros and cons, one cannot help but contemplate whether there is a better way.

Is there an approach that has the principles, undergirding, and concepts to bridge the gaps we observe, to fix the weaknesses that are largely a consequence of an overly individualistic and ultra-competitive existence, where situations are defined mainly in terms of winning and losing? Is there a proposition that can remedy the urgent demand for a fundamental shift in outlook? I believe there is a conscious, even if largely unspoken, demand for an approach with a greater balance that arrests leadership to consistently deliver value beyond narrow confines, which are often self-serving. I am convinced that Ubuntu leadership, built of the philosophy that “I am because we are,” holds some of the answers.

Leadership should be transformational, moving people, organizations, communities, and nations. Mandela may be our best and most prominent modern example of this way of leading. Taking account of the totality of his life’s work, I believe he represented and still represents, a transformative force that epitomizes the essence of what true leadership is. His example points us to a path that places leadership at the center of the well-being of others and emphasizes the value of the collective. It points to the rejection of selfishness while embracing excellence but is fundamentally focused on the obligations and relationships we have with others.

Ubuntu as a philosophical undergirding of leadership provides a very fertile and diverse set of guardrails to help manage the ethical and moral dimensions of leadership and strategy. Derived from traditional and ancient African thinking and practices, it was a way of organizing, protecting, serving, and importantly democratizing the complex issues in tribal societies. Because it was simply a way of life, and not a set of esoteric, academic principles, it became deeply embedded and ubiquitous in the cultural, social, organizational and certainly business affairs of its purveyors. A complex but seemingly simple framework for securing the well-being of the community. The fundamental idea is that decisions are taken in the interest of that larger society, the majority of the grouping, community or tribe. I argue that this is what is missing from many leaders today. That which drives them has no sound philosophical groundings and, as such, goals and results are achieved without the pressures of being filtered by a set of principles.

Ubuntu is at great tension with the general view of the world today, and certainly leadership. The tensions emerge with the popularity of individualism, heroism, and differentiation; each being the basis on which great achievements are built, setting apart the achiever from all others. Leadership, as observed in practice today, appears hardwired in individualistic philosophy. At its core is competition – to outdo the rival, to outdo coworkers, to outdo friends, to outdo every entity that cannot be narrowly defined as “us” and ultimately “I”. This approach to leadership is highly influenced by the approach to competitive enterprise. The drive is to become “the leader”, “the first of”, “number one”, “the best in the world” and unfortunately at times done at the expense of destroying value for the many in favor of the few.

The nature of competitive enterprise is certainly valuable for humanity, corporations, and country. Many of us thrive by offering and cementing unique value propositions or creative differentiation. The world benefits from this battle to exploit differentness comparative advantages, economies of scale, and create highly developed competencies. I am not, therefore, proposing Ubuntu as an absolute alternative to popular leadership approaches but instead as an important and urgent complement to them. In my opinion, Ubuntu is a solution for the serious challenges and weaknesses we observe, and an antidote of sorts for the schemes and circumstances where the interest of the wider group should naturally take precedent over any narrow special interest or controlling minority, but is not.

There is a clear recognition here that no one approach is perfect on its own. Therefore, the extent to which there is complementarity is the extent to which we can truly leverage the best of all worlds. Combining a way of thinking which seeks to protect and better provide for the persons being led and the thinking that leverages the power of competition, individualism and differentiation to create economic value, has the potential of greater benefits. Compassion, respect, empathy, connectedness, interdependence and kindness enhance the potency of leadership and balance its effect.

Look at what is happening in the area of leadership in the world today, whether corporate, community, national or international. There is deception and manipulation, all designed to create value for a limited few while destroying hopes and dreams, eschewing obligations of duty and care and diverting value from “the many”. The individualistic approach has become the dominant formula and culture. A culture of winner takes all and the losers console each other. A culture that gives credence to the idea that we live in an environment of general scarcity of opportunities rather than of abundance. A culture that ignores the idea of the collective good for the interest of the individual.

There is a place for individualism, there is a place for competitiveness, and there is a place for fair, honest competition. There, however, ought to be no place in humanity where these elements destroy others. The issue that arises, therefore, is how do we find the balance? Where is the point of equilibrium? Is there really such a thing as an equilibrium or rather is there simply an urgent need for greater moderation? Ubuntu as a philosophy has the ability to become that potent moderator and regulator of extreme instances of unhelpful or indifferent individualism.

Dr. Myles Munroe stated, “Leadership is not about control but service. It’s not about power but empowerment; it is not about manipulation but inspiration.” Control, power, and manipulation are all entrenched in an imprudent paradigm of individualistic behaviors where the focus is on one person or group of persons to the disadvantage of others. There is a place for individual expression and competitive drive has benefit that creates benefit well beyond the individual. However, misapplied, it has the power to create negative outcomes. The Ubuntu traits of compassion, empathy, kindness can remedy these challenges.

Organizations can use Ubuntu as a means of addressing important challenges around leadership, the need for effective corporate governance, ethics, equality and fairness, corporate social responsibility, and sustainable growth. Ubuntu has the potential to strike at the heart of issues that are damaging to corporate morale, well-being, and culture. Where there are issues such as collective protection, lapses, and lack of reprimand, the Ubuntu philosophy holds the potential to positively influence the culture and thereby shift the results.

Do you live or lead by Ubuntu? I try to live according to its tenets, the most fundamental being the recognition that there is a deep and unbreakable connection amongst all humanity. A person is a person through other persons, which reminds us that our humanity is gleaned from and expressed through others. Ubuntu constantly reminds us that we are connected and indivisible, regardless of how we see others or ourselves. Those who live by its precepts seek to be kind, compassionate, empathetic, loving, and respectful. They embrace the connectedness of all. Ubuntu is therefore not just a set of principles to follow as a guide or an approach to leading, but a way of living, of being. As a leader, do you have it?

Persons who do, and are leaders, always seem to lead others to a better place. Mandela, Mother Teresa, MLK Jr., Gandhi, Garvey. Each on examination believed in leading for the greater good, acknowledging the sacredness of one’s humanity, and being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others. The world needs more Ubuntu leaders today! It is certainly not a panacea for all challenges but its approach, I believe, can make a significant difference!

There are many aspects of life, which alone we will make progress but optimized success will never emerge until we join hands and heart with others. Recognizing that we are entities joined by a complex web of interdependencies does two things. Firstly, we must actively contribute to the best of our ability to that web of enabling interdependencies. Without each playing his/her part, its efficacy is always reduced, in some instances, fatally so. Secondly, we must not be afraid to tap into this web. It is there for you and me, for us, for the betterment of the collective. Until we understand that, the best of us will lie buried, connected yet divided. We will believe and behave with high levels of selfishness, styled as independence. This is largely because we misunderstand the true concept that being an individual is a recognition that we are part of an indivisible whole and therefore we are all here to add to the oneness, wholeness of us. For this, I commend a careful deliberation over the thinking of Ubuntu, its concepts, and the value it holds for enhancing the potency of leadership.

• Hubert Edwards is the principal of Next Level Solutions Limited (NLS), a management consultancy firm. He can be reached at info@nlsolustionsbahamas.com. Hubert specializes in governance, risk and compliance (GRC), Accounting and Finance. NLS provides services in the areas of enterprise risk management, internal audit and policy and procedures development, regulatory consulting, anti-money laundering, accounting and strategic planning.

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