Tribute to Nelson Mandela

A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Attuned Leadership: African Humanism As Compass at the UCT Graduate School of Business

By Dr Reuel Jethro Khoza  I  14 November 2013

Why The Ubuntu Perspective
“Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter” African proverb

Attuned Leadership Defined
Connectedness, compassion, integrity, humility, reasonableness and the determination to be effective predicated on knowledgeability – what I call a sense of efficacy – are the keys to attuned leadership: Leadership which is reflective, resonant, values-based and vision-led.

A leader who forms deep and durable reciprocal relationships within the community or organization can step boldly into an uncertain future with the certainty that the followers will lend their support behind. Leadership is about sense and sensing, about thought and feeling, about insight into and harmony with the followership. I call this attuned leadership

The leader cannot stand alone but must stand with the followers, interpret for them, strive to fulfil their hopes, and be their champion in the struggles of life. Leadership is achieved, not given. The leader’s moral authority is fashioned in the encounter with community. The power to lead is the product of support for a person whose actions bespeak solidarity with the needs and aspirations of the many.

I have come to use the term “Attuned Leadership” to describe the quality of leaders who are attuned to the hopes, expectations, fears and demands of their followers. An ethic of service lies at the heart of Attuned Leadership.

Attuned Leadership – A Universal Challenge
Leadership, however, is a universal calling. It is a feature of politics, business, civil society and family matters. It is everywhere and it involves everyone. Those men and women who lead us successfully are co-ordinators rather than controllers. Their moral stature arises from dedication to our cause. We admire them not because they are powerful; they are powerful because we make them so, and they are admirable when they provide clear vision and positive direction. Cabinets, Boards and Foundations all need leaders. People need leaders. But we should never forget that leadership represents a meeting of the spirit between persons and communities.

Nature – Nurture & Attuned Leadership
Leaders are not just born to the role. They are born, then made – and sometimes unmade- by their own actions. A leader who is not in tune with the followership soon becomes a leader in limbo and sooner than later withers.
Former President, Nelson Mandela, never fell into limbo as a leader. I am not likely to cite anything new in the moments of his life that has been highlighted previously in news reports, books and documentaries. What I seek to do is reconstruct the record to reveal the inner workings of attuned leadership in the hands of a master.

Throughout his political life, Mandela has demonstrated Aristotle's principles of practical wisdom concentrating on the common god and putting his leadership skills at the service of his followers.

Dimensions of Attunement
The attuned leader ensures that he or she bridges the dualisms of leader and led, self and community, person and people, I am and you are, we are:

  • Being self –attuned as a leader and emotionally intelligent.
  • Being attuned to the situation, knowledgeable, capable and astute.
  • Being attuned to the needs and aspiration of followers.
  • Being attuned to the moral imperatives of integrity, efficacy and humility.
  • Being attuned to history, the present and destiny.

Crucial Personal Qualities

  • Insight: seeing the world from the followership’s vantage point and embracing their world views non- judgementally, ‘to walk in their moccasins,’ so to speak. Attuned leadership is thus passionate as it is compassionate.
  • Inspiration: Engendering a sense of follower self – worth, pride in current status and hopefulness in the future. In the relationship of leader led, it is vital to strike a balance between reality and potential.
  • Commitment: Ardently pursuing an agreed course of action but remaining willing to be flexible and respond to changes in the environment or expectations.
  • Probity: Assuring the followers that the leader can be held accountable. Probity is the ethical imperative to remain upright and honest in the service of the followership, and behaving in a manner that is beyond reproach.

Orchestral Music as Attuned Leadership Metaphor
Leadership orchestrates complexity. The metaphor of musical harmony (including disharmony) is germane to Attuned Leadership. The phrase attuned leadership anyway contains this metaphor with all that it implies about an ensemble of separate players all mutually tuned to perform together. Harmony does not mean unison, by the way. Only a dictator demands total unison from the subject people, using terror and propaganda to impose conformity. Instrumentalists in an orchestra rarely harp on a single note but instead make music from many lines of melody in counterpoint. In the same way, leadership relies on the combination of talents in the community to deliver a command performance. An attuned leader seeks consensus amongst the followers (harmony), but will settle for sufficient consensus allowing for some disagreement (disharmony) to be voiced as a healthy sign of tolerance for differences of opinion.

My daughter Munene Khoza, as a student of the arts, helped me to full appreciation of the metaphor when she wrote:
The basic conventions of music present the ensemble with a common language and means of cohesion. However, the role of the conductor extends far beyond donning the cheekily archaic tail-coat tuxedo and affording his musicians a steady beat to latch on to. It is the conductor's task to use convention as a point of departure from which to draw from his orchestra a performance that is characterised by the notions of favouring the collective over the individual and the beauty of inimitable interpretation over uninspired recitation. The invariable potential of the collective and the journey from page to performance hinges on the conductor's talent to observe, cultivate and optimise talent in others.

Munene puts her finger on the essence of inspired leadership by contrasting dullness with “the beauty of inimitable interpretation”: there has to be something rousing in the leader’s vision to motivate a strong following.

The Attuned Leader and Moral Authority
The moral authority of the attuned leader rests squarely on the community’s appreciation for the personhood of the leader. Personhood is the term to describe not just personality but the achievement of respect in the eyes of others. Those who prove to be effective leaders are individuals who seek power not for its own sake but to be of service to their fellows. It is this that gains them approbation, conferring the moral worth of personhood on their shoulders. It is this that gives them the confidence to forge ahead knowing they have won the trust of those who yearn to be led. It is personhood that lends leadership its being. The attuned leader takes direction from a deep spiritual bond with the followers and in placing himself or herself at their service is bound to be reflective, principled, and dedicated. Moral authority can never be built on superficiality, opportunism, or self-centredness.

The Attuned Leader and Opportunity Identification
The attuned leader in today’s world sees opportunities and solutions that others do not. But he or she also knows that the direction to be set has to accord with what followers believe, want and need.  Visions of the future ought to be congruent with the history that has shaped people down to the present – or the leap from what is, to what could be, is likely to be an ungainly lurch that falls flat. Failure to make the connection between hope and achievement, between past, present and future, is also a failure of value-creation. Leadership can only succeed over the longer term by sharing the values and aspirations of the following, and this means being able to distinguish between that which is expedient and populist, and that which is serviceable and honest. It takes insight, empathy and discipline to achieve resonance with followers – and these are the personal and group qualities that Ubuntu promotes.

A Sense of Efficacy and The Attuned Leader
To maintain trust over time, the leader must demonstrate efficacy that is, show that the community’s power to change things for the better is real and that real change can and does occur.  The attuned leader achieves this by:

  • Plumbing to the heart of one’s own motivations in order to be emotionally intelligent in dealing with others;
  • Securing consonance with the followership’s desires and disappointments, respecting their human worth, and striving to meet their needs effectively;
  • Basing every word and act on a principled approach to problems that is informed by knowledge and study;
  • Sharing the followership’s sense of where they came from where they are, and where they are going, their history and sense of destiny.

Individualism vs Collectivism & The Attuned Leader
“I think therefor I am” (Cogito ergo sum)
“Umuntu ngamuntu ngabantu” – (I am because you are, you are because we are”.

When I was studying corporate governance as a younger man, my lead mentor – concerned about what he regarded as my woolly African thinking – advised me that I should reconsider my faith in Ubuntu as an intellectual framework.  It was time to abandon the soft thinking informed by “I am because you are, you are because we are” and adopt the ‘intellectually sounder and more useful’ Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’.  For my mentor, this was the right starting point for success in business and in life.  Think, young man, think, he insisted.  I did think and it troubled me to deny him.  He shook his head kindly, but despairingly, as I clung stubbornly to my heritage and went on in my soft and muddled way.

Tough I felt he was wrong there was no way for me to counter the intellectual arrogance that his advice – however well meant – represented.

As an initiate into corporate governance and the intricacies of company directorships, I was there to learn and absorb what I could of the disciplines of business.  I was not about to launch into a metaphysical disquisition on the strengths of my African worldview.  I would certainly have been worsted in any debate. Little did my mentor – or I, for that matter – suspect that years later I would come to the realisation that Ubuntu could and should be rigorously defended against doubters and critics, and indeed, strongly advanced as the basis for a better wold and better business practices.

The force of the statement ‘I am because you are’ may be grasped in a moment by comparing it with what my mentor wanted me to embrace.  Arguably the most famous statement of being in Western philosophy, ‘I think, therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum), was coined by Rene Descartes in his Mediations on First Philosophy in 1639.  Significantly, while no one knows who coined the term Ubuntu – a fact that in itself signifies its deep communal roots – it was a single individual, on a known date, who broached the idea that thoughts in a person’s mind prove that person’s existence.

The contrast is striking. Ubuntu posits a collective existence; the Cartesian worldview rests on individual identity.  In Descartes’ view, a person is an entity separate from others.  The person may know him- or herself only by means of conscious thought.  This is a far cry from reflecting that one human life is the product of all other human lives.  In African humanist terms, one’s existence does not depend on what one thinks in the lone citadel of the mind, but on social ties, common values and ways-of-seeing, and empathy with others.  It is an all-embracing intellectual, emotional, spiritual and psychological acknowledgement of commonality.

Role of the Intelligentsia
Intellectuals by and large provide the thought-through leadership of society: connecting ideas with deeds. They ground morality and political strategy in patterns of understanding that give meaning and purpose to social action. They expound principles. They fashion programmes. They dwell on problems and find concepts and words to suggest the solutions. Intellectual activity may appear like a selfish and withdrawn exercise if the intellectual is the retiring type. In Africa we expect intellectuals to be engaged in dialogues with their fellow men and women, whether rich or poor, educated or not. In other words, we regard intellectuals as the compass-bearers of our day and age, the voices of our communities, and the standard-bearers of our causes.
They are human like all of us and are not set apart as a kind of priestly elite to lord their learning over us.

Unfortunately the ‘thinking class’ in modern society has become exactly that: a disconnected elite whose technical and specialist skills equip them as ideal allies of dominant political and economic factions. The kind of intellectual engagement we most often witness takes the form of competition between thinkers serving those who strive to occupy the commanding heights of society. Intellectuals who take part in these games are really serving masters who have their hands on power and resources. By furthering the interests of these masters they stand to reap the substantial rewards that accrue to the bright, the knowledgeable and the witty. They are companions of fortune. Of course, if fortunes change they will sell their aptitudes elsewhere.

Being and Becoming
In  metaphysical terms Ubuntu is first  and foremost a statement of being – the ‘ I am’ in all of us. It declares that each of us, in our separate lives, draws existence from the collective and that we are only persons through other persons. It does not stop there. The divine and everlasting spirit of the Almighty unites us, while our ancestors, who leave us for the world beyond the grave, are ever present to remind us of our spiritual bonds with and duties to the community. We all exist in the light of  the Great Spirit.
The reach of this metaphysics is enormous. Its repercussion flow through all subsequent statements about who and what we are.

  • Ontologically, how we should see the world.
  • Epistemologically, what our knowledge amounts to.
  • Logically, what is reasonable.
  • Ethically, how we should act for the good of all.
  • Aesthetically, how beauty can be collectively perceived.
  • Politically, how decisions should be made.


Ubuntu, as a state of mind, should be capable of resolving these and other conflicts.  It has the advantage of not being an organised religion, although we can and should institutionalise our humanistic faith.  Not as a church, a constitution or Sunday or Sabbath ritual, but in the form of community structures – secular in form and programmes but spiritual in context.

No philosophy has yet fully resolved the conflicts and contradictions of modern life, such as those arising from the breakdown of family life, sexual practices, poverty, capitalism, communism and socialism.  So why should  African humanism be expected to be a cure-all?  It has been savaged by European colonialism and overzealous missionaries with their racism,  we have never been able to teach Ubuntu formally in schools, colleges and universities.  To institutionalise is therefore to insist on the inclusion of African history, sociology, psychology, geography, cultures, to be taught throughout informal and formal education.  If, as we argue, African humanism is inclusive rather than exclusive, we can have no fear or being accused (even by Africans!) of establishing a ‘bantustan’ (ghetto) of ideas.  To institutionalise the idea is also to restore Africa to ourselves, to take charge of our cultural growth rather than be educated for other people’s purposes.