The Ubuntu Philosophy as a Conceptual Framework for Interpersonal Relationships and Leadership

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital) to “Nedbank Group Technology Leaders”  I  15 September 2012

Connectedness, compassion, integrity, humility, reasonableness and the determination to be effective – what I call a sense of efficacy – are the keys to attuned leadership. A leader who forms deep and lasting reciprocal relationships within the community 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.

From an African perspective you cannot have proper management without ethical leadership. The former is strictly subordinate to the latter because the ultimate responsibility of leadership is to ensure that the organisation is permeated by humanness. Management is a systems function which, in the final analysis, makes it morally neutral – not primarily concerned with rightness but with efficient performance. Management will be moral if the leadership holds it on course.  Ubuntu is essentially transformative since it directs organisations towards an “ethics of care”. The humane style of leadership generated by African humanism puts people first though I hasten to add that it is not soft on performance. By encouraging people, empowering them, and requiring collective alignment, it promises to be more, not less, effective.

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.

In Africa we say a person is a person because of other people, and nowhere is this more apt than in the relationship between leader and followers. Mutual dependence is the ethic of African humanism, or Ubuntu. In its strongest formulation it asserts that my very being derives from yours and yours from all of ours. This is expressed in the Zulu proverb: Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu (I am because you are; you are because we are).

Our conception of being is held in common. We follow our ancestors in believing that our humanness is not an individual quality but something that is of necessity shared. The implications for leadership are enormous.

Our global leadership is virtually bankrupt of the values needed to reform international relations, lessen conflict, eradicate poverty, and create the conditions for a sustainable future for humanity. We need leaders that recognise we are one human community on a fragile planet. Only by means of intelligently led co-operation can we save the planet from destruction and ourselves from mutual annihilation. Such leadership can only come about through a value system that emphasises sharing, communally agreed use of resources, and above all, respect for human dignity – the basis of all good governance.

To invoke the philosophy of African humanism as a special contribution to the universal paradigm of leadership is not to excuse the many shortcomings of leadership in Africa itself. It is a source of great pain to acknowledge Africa’s miserable governance (in many countries but not everywhere). Both corporate governance and political leadership are undermined by the exploitative behaviour of foreign companies, as also by the practices of neopatrimonialism. This refers to the corruption of traditional patrimonial values by politicians and business people who use their resources to secure loyalty and enrich themselves, soaking up millions and spreading vice wherever they lay their hands.

Ubuntu sees communities and leadership holistically. It can certainly form the basis of what has been called systemic leadership, but it has much more to offer. A system’s proper functioning depends on the interplay of its constituent parts. Yet systems have little or no emotional appeal: they are not redolent of values and they appear to exclude our ethical sense because they are purely functional. On the other hand, just as an orchestra performs to create beauty in sound, so Ubuntu and other traditions can evoke stirring, mythical images that belong in our collective subconscious, reverberating with meaning and purpose. Leadership needs to tap into this stirring subliminal universe of the past. It needs to connect with us as people, not just as parts of a system. By means of tradition, mere functions are converted to moral purposes in terms of our inherited understanding of what is good for all of us, or bad, or indifferent and aimless. We are our history, and we live the present through the past. When leadership connects, it does so with a sense of destiny, taking us from beginning to becoming. Ubuntu transcends systems thinking, helpful as this approach may be.

The tremendous power of Ubuntu resides in its very simple formulation that every person’s being is dependent on every other.

Ubuntu as a people's philosophy of daily living amazed those who had no previous knowledge of African value systems. Writing for a top international blogsite, The Huffington Post, visiting development worker Shari Cohen had this to say about her encounters during the World Cup:

To me, Ubuntu is the acceptance of others as parts of the sum total of each of us. And that is exactly what I have experienced ... If I could say one thing to sum up being here during this once-in-a-lifetime experience, it would be that I've learned the value of Ubuntu, and that when found and offered in abundance, the world is indeed a better place to live in.

African humanism compels a re-evaluation of our place in the world and our attitudes and behaviour with respect to fellow humans.

We act out of compassion, based on an understanding of our common human condition – that at times in our lives we, like they, will hunger, and thirst, and crave the fellowship of the human race. The other aspects of Ubuntu to which Mandela refers are all subordinate to this principle.

These aspects include respect for the other, helpfulness, sharing, caring, unselfishness, and a sense of community. The qualities are captioned on the Mandela video online with the final comment: “Can one word mean so much?” To the meanings given here we can add humility and probity, qualities that are especially important in leadership where serving others with a sense of integrity and accountability is a natural extension of Ubuntu. Yes, one word can mean much!

My being and your being are the creation of our collective being, the being of humanity itself. This leads to the proposition that we are necessarily moral beings (although we may act immorally) because each of us owes our existence to all others. This is not because the others are useful to us; it is because we are bound by our reason and emotions to acknowledge the human worth and right to dignity of others as we acknowledge our own.

In a world riven by fundamentalist intolerance, military conflict, social distress and economic inequalities, humanity needs a uniting idea and set of caring values. Ubuntu is that.

Africa can do better than paint itself into exculpatory corner. Indeed, my aim is to do the exact opposite by breaking out of Africa with the affirmation of Ubuntu as a principle of world leadership. This is not to say that I expect world leaders to adopt an African creed as the new religion of leadership. In its humanism, Ubuntu joins other humanisms as a guide to rational, compassionate, secular problem-solving, decision-making and action intended for the common good. Its roots are in Africa, but like the mighty baobab tree it is a giant of the mind, symbolising an idea that people of many different backgrounds can instantly recognise. Seen from the outside, Ubuntu has all the trappings of an African belief system including the word itself, but as it means “our shared humanity” or “being human” it can be internalised by anyone, anywhere.

The African approach is holistic, since “being human” implies more than being a reasoning individual: to be human in the fullest sense is to think, feel, behave, relate, reflect and be part of families, communities and the whole of humanity.

At this point the reader may be smiling wryly at my innocence, as a businessman, rushing into contested philosophical terrain. Those who are schooled in these matters tread warily where many brilliant minds have been before. Why, in any case, should a work on leadership delve deeply into humanism – when all that is needed is a set of ethical rules to guide the leader? Naturally, I cannot go along with the notion that leadership is about simply playing by the rules. One would be hard put to draw up a comprehensive set of rules covering every situation. There are indeed guidelines for good governance and much of this book addresses these. However, in leadership, as in life itself, morality is not hidebound by do’s and don’ts that can easily be twisted to serve instrumental ends that are neither right nor proper.

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 we are only persons through other persons. This is a meta-statement because it makes a fundamental assertion about the nature of our existence which is not reducible to anything else. I am because others are. The reach of this statement is enormous. Its repercussions 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; politically how decisions should be made; aesthetically how beauty can be collectively perceived.

Ubuntu is very much a political philosophy, not only as a subset of ethics as explained above, but because the ethic of humanness implies that leaders owe their status and powers to their fellow humans, the people whom they are expected to serve rather than being in a position to impose their will from above. Ubuntu expresses the philosophy of ethical leadership and is thus relevant to business, science and society as a whole. Ubuntu in the political sphere emphasises the need for sufficient consensus in decision-making after all views have been canvassed. Only then can the leader make a decision on behalf of all. The institutions that might reflect this manner of consensus making would undoubtedly be democratic and consultative – but not in the standard liberal sense that adversary parties, competing for the public vote, seek a winner-takes-all victory.

The basic argument is: What I want to apply to me must apply to you also.

The ethic of Ubuntu rests on two foundations: our logical sense or reason, and our spiritual, psychological and emotional awareness of the needs of others.

Business practice has convinced me that Ubuntu is a real living force that bridges differences between people and makes shared vision and action possible.

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 Meditations 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 world-view is 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.