Ubuntu is an African term popularized by persons such as Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Movement following the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The philosophy can be seen payed out in the leadership of its most well known proponent, Nelson Mandela. The term Ubuntu (U-bunn-tuu) is a complex one and how it is expressed is highly dependent on the language in which it’s spoken. However, there is a generally accepted and simplified meaning which states....I am because we are. "I am" as used in the English language is a state of being. We say "I am great"; "I am happy"; "I am hungry"; "I am at home".
From a spiritual perspective I am defines a deeper essence, it reflects the totality of who we are. This emanates from the conversation between Moses and God where God, when asked what's your name, who should I tell them, declares I am, that I am! Persons following the Christian tradition will readily accept the latter part but many will recoil from any attempt to apply "I am" to a human form. The power of these words though is unquestionable when we consider that I and am together can only describe the speaker of those words. Ubuntu therefore recognizes the individual in the scheme of life and very profoundly does something which many overlook in speaking about it. It locks “I” into “us” and therefore forces us to see ourselves not as a divisible entity but part of a single collective. This carries great sway when applied to ones life or as a framework for leading others. Clearly if I am always connected and always impacted then likely I will exert greater care in protecting the well being of "us" which inextricable carries "I".
"Because we are" is the magical aspect of the principle. As powerful as the recognition of the individual is it’s the pronouncement that he is nothing without the collective. The principle of Ubuntu promulgates that we cannot be better individually than our state of being collectively. In a village of say ten persons if five are well fed because they have resources and the other five are starving the state of that village is one of suffering. On the one hand there is physical suffering from lack of food and on the other there is a spiritual hunger for lack of compassion and care. The reduced capacity of five hungry villagers now weakens the collective productivity and wellbeing of the entire village. Again a potent lesson for leaders at all levels. The capacity of the collective is always the optimal state which leadership effort should be geared towards achieving. This therefore demands almost clinical concern for the wellbeing of each individual.
If we pull the first three words we see a powerful pattern starts to emerge. "I am because" brings potently to the fore that the individual depends on the collective or at least should see his state of being as being strongly influenced by that of the collective. "I am happy because we are happy"; "I am fulfilled because we are all provisioned even though there is not a lot"; "I am comfortable because my family safe". These are examples of how the principle can be looked at.
The Latin root for the word individual is individuum which means undivided or indivisible. "I am" speaks to the individual. Looked at in this way Ubuntu takes on its true power. The principle restated could be written as such: I, being indivisible from us all, am in a particular state of being because we are all, and being indivisible, in the same state of being. Our actions therefore to each other must have greater import to life if it is true that we are of a common consciousness, indivisible. You may not accept this as a truth but reflect on the idea of "no man is an island, no man stands alone, each man is my brother". Leadership and living through this lens is always going to be richer with compassion, respect, kindness, and affinity. These are the essence of Ubuntu!
The potency of this thinking thought came rushing home as I sat and listened to a pastor make the connection between Ubuntu and a passage in the bible. Chapter 25 of the book of Mathew lays out the treatment that the arbiter of this call for oneness would bring to persons based on their actions. Being rational intellects those being judged asked how did we do or not do these things. The response was "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me". This is the same as saying whatever you did not do for yourself, being indivisible from the whole; you must now bear the fruitage of your action. Aligning this with the principle of Ubuntu shows that the resulting action of kindness and proper treatment of others ultimately accrues to the benefit of "I am", the individual, with the initial benefit of the act having coursed its way through the collective.
Ubuntu therefore stands as a principle with spiritual ramifications and can be rationalized on the word of the bible and other spiritual traditions. How therefore can we claim to be good people, God people, upstanding citizens of the world and yet we treat our brothers and sisters, the least amongst us with great disdain and unkindness. It was instructive that the same pastor was also building on a theme of "Good Deeds", encouraging his congregants to perform random acts of kindness. The alignment to leadership begs similar question. How can we be effective leaders when we fail to act and treat others with kindness, respect and empathy at a core level and in a consistent manner?
The story popularly told, and used by the pastor on this day to explain the principle, is that of kids who held hands and ran together then sharing a basket of candies, which represent the prize one could have won for him/herself had they taken a competitive stance. This story properly assessed dove tails back to the biblical passage where when all ran together (helping others) they were acknowledged and rewarded. Those who did otherwise, though in life they may have accrued to themselves many "candies" were rejected and sent away.
The reality is, and this is the potent measure of the Ubuntu principle, is that when we give or sacrifice our potential gain so other may too share in the "spoils of life" we store up rewards much greater than we can imagine and ultimately we become our better selves, we become individuals who will be recognized and be rewarded for having lived selflessly. The question therefore is how are you running the races? To win for self or so that others, the least amongst us may.
We have an obligation to give, to share, to support others. The high points of our lives are always at the intersections of our interdependencies. We need others to unleash the best of us and they need us in order to be their best. Ubuntu calls for us never to ignore opportunities to share and to positively affect the lives of others. Experience shows that often this kind of assistance occurs in very small ways with simple things. There are instances, however, when helping may require greater effort and even sacrifice which stretches us. Whatever the circumstance demands, we are obligated to do what we can to the best of our abilities. On a personal level, this is non-negotiable: there is no arguing whether you can; when you can, you must simply do it.
The impact of Ubuntu on leadership (but life in general) is that demands a type of kindness that goes beyond seeking to impress others. Things are not done for aggrandizement or out of pity but with the knowledge that what is done for one in the fulfilment of an obligation must be done with dignity and care and is enacted for the sake of the collective. Ubuntu pushes you to recognize that where a member of the human family displays evidence of lack, brokenness, anxiety, or despair, those who have the capacity should work to fix it; otherwise, the collective will experience lack, brokenness, anxiety, or despair.
Carry the weak, support the timid, share your wisdom, and bear the bruises with dignity and honour; it is a privilege. Many are likely to accord this approach as something geared at the poor and those less capable of providing for themselves. This is not so; it applies equally to every human being, recognizing every person as an important part of the fabric of humanity. Fundamentally, what it calls for is to respond to the human need regardless of station simply because they are human.