Ubuntu Collaboration: Lessons from South Africa

In the vibrant new democracy of South Africa, Ubuntu is a way of life. With its roots in the Bantu languages of southern Africa, Ubuntu literally means “I am what I am because of who we all are.” This is the essence of true collaboration, where the primary focus of cultural transformation is to move from a culture of “I” to one of “we” where our collective wisdom and leadership not only builds high trust, but also results in high performance.

On a recent trip to South Africa, I was struck by the high level of interest in all things collaborative. Where we sometimes struggle in the United States with the “soft” skills needed to truly collaborate, there is eagerness to discover and use the principles, practices, and processes of collaborative leadership in a country that is still struggling with the legacy of apartheid.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave one definition of Ubuntu as a person who is “open and available to others, affirming [them], does not feel threatened” by others’ abilities, and has confidence “that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished …” (No Future Without Forgiveness, 1999).

Judge Colin Lamont, in a Johannesburg court ruling in 2011, expanded on the definition of Ubuntu by pointing to a number of key characteristics that could apply to our own definition of collaboration in the workplace:

  • It is not vengeful or focused on retribution
  • It is grounded in the values of dignity, compassion, and respect for each other’s humanity
  • It focuses on a shift from confrontation to mediation and conciliation
  • It promotes mutual understanding, civility, dialogue and mutual tolerance
  • Conflicts are to be resolved face-to-face with a focus on resolution rather than the most powerful winning
  • It favors restorative justice and reconciliation in relationships
  • We can learn a lot about collaboration from the values and practices of Ubuntu:
  • It is about “we” not “me,” the community of shared interests, not just individual self-interest
  • The dignity and value of every individual is respected, supported and appreciated by the group
  • It’s not about power or winning — it’s about equality and the face-to-face resolution of differences
  • It’s not about punishment or retribution in our relationships, but rather mutual understanding and reconciliation

We live in an interdependent world which is requiring each of us to see ourselves as part of the greater whole. We need each other to be able to solve our shared problems. And yet we have so much to learn to be able to become a “We,” to let go of our individualistic notions of heroic leadership. Achieving Ubuntu Collaboration in the American workplace is a journey. In our interdependent world, we can find the deeper meaning of true collaboration, and what is required to achieve it from South Africa. For “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919.265.9616.