Shared value and sustainability are two related but also distinct ideas that have become business buzzwords. And yet, according to Bonang Mohale, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, these ideas have long been built into African cultures in the concept of ubuntu.

Ubuntu is often translated as “I am because you are” and encapsulates the idea of humanity, but more than that, how our personhood depends on relation to one another. This is summarised by the phrase, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which means, “a person is a person through people”.

Mohale believes that while the focus, even in African institutions, is often on western business school philosophies, there is much to be garnered from the idea of ubuntu and its applications in business.

“We sadly have a history where most Europeans did not come to Africa to learn from it, but to change it,” he says. “It’s little wonder that today, borrowed conversations pour from our lips and borrowed robes hang from our necks. Anything and everything indigenous and uniquely African has been vilified and disparaged, minimised and destroyed. The world knows our first democratically elected president as Nelson Mandela, whereas his original name was Rolihlahla. Nelson was a word given to him by one of his teachers. Similarly, we know not Mangaliso but Robert Sobukwe, not Nontsikelelo but Albertina Sisulu. The same is true for many of us, since the first missionaries said Jesus would not be able to pronounce our given names! Even in management, most of our concepts come from the USA or are Eurocentric. By definition, business is Afro-phobic.”

Given the recent student calls to decolonise education, this is an important discussion in the context of African business schools.

Morris Mthombeni, executive director: faculty and lecturer at GIBS, agrees that many theories of leadership espoused in business school environments are derived from western contexts, and that not enough attention is paid to African leadership models. But, he says, this also has a lot to do with the way that knowledge is generated in the academic environment and how it sits in the broader literature of human capital.

Western knowledge traditions dominate over African traditions because they are articulated as rational, rather than creative, and have a large body of knowledge backing them. “Until African leadership models have those levels of research, writing and testing in different contexts behind them, they will not be absorbed into the core body of knowledge and disseminated as effectively as western traditions,” Mthombeni says. “Gains are being made, however. In Lagos, Nigeria, there’s work being done on ‘Africapitalism’, looking at an African model of capitalism that will create a more sustainable economy. But even that is not widely talked about yet. Concepts like ubuntu are discussed in the social sciences, like anthropology, but are not yet part of the core teachings in business schools.”

...most Europeans did not come to Africa to learn from it, but to change it.

Mthombeni believes that the new GIBS Centre for African Management and Markets is a step in the right direction to bringing African leadership and business models out of the fringes of academia and into its core. “It’s an invitation and an opportunity for academics, both at GIBS and more broadly, to find a home here for discussion, debate and ultimately knowledge creation on matters of interest,” he says.

What business can learn from ubuntu

Ubuntu is premised on the idea of shared humanity and equality, Mohale says. “Ubuntu adequately and effectively deals with calamities that befall us because we recognise our inter-dependence and the need for symbiosis. That has always been the way of life in Africa. Bartering, for example, was not just trading for goods and services. It was more profound than that – a means for ensuring survival of whole communities. We recognised that when we were trading, we were creating future markets. We were building resilient societies. We understood that when we invested in the thriving of our neighbouring village, we were ensuring that they would bear sons who would grow up to be husbands to our daughters.”

Many African traditions demonstrate the value of ubuntu, from lobola (paying a dowry for a bride) to letsema (where families would help one another to harvest crops). “Lobola was never about the price,” Mohale says. “It was about a young man demonstrating that he was capable of taking care of himself, first and foremost, before looking after another person. Similarly, in African families, we always cooked with the biggest pot so that we would be able to take food to those who had no means to cook for themselves, or in preparation for the visitor who might just pop in. We understood that you sleep better at night when you know your neighbour is not hungry.”

The idea of creating shared value and contributing to the sustainability agenda, which are seen as being progressive business trends, are things that have always been deeply rooted in African cultures, Mohale says. “Whether we’re talking about moving beyond control and command leadership to people-centred organisations or developing and valuing human capital, the idea of ubuntu is applicable. When you strip off all the names, the idea is about genuinely caring about other human beings, and that is ubuntu.”

Mthombeni adds that many western leadership philosophies stem from the “great man” model, where the leader is the source of power and wisdom, and the force for transformation. “These models may overemphasise the role of the leader, and underemphasise the role of followers,” he says. “Ubuntu, on the other hand, shifts the logic to take into account the role of followers. In the phrase ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, we see recognition that it is followers who authorise a leader to lead, who provide that social licence to lead.”

...you sleep better at night when you know your neighbour is not hungry.

When ubuntu is modelled, Mthombeni explains, leadership takes into account the entire community, which in a business context might be the people within an organisation, but also clients, suppliers and even competitors. As leaders seek to look after all the various stakeholders, so the whole community benefits, including the leader and the business. By focusing first externally, ubuntu ensures shared value is created. It requires an awareness of multiple perspectives and lenses, an enquiring mindset and more creativity than “great man” leadership models. It also demands ethical awareness. It is a complex approach, but one that pays dividends for everyone involved – not just shareholders.

Striving for ubuntu leadership in your business

Reuel J. Khoza notes that “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.” Rather than replacing a management style, Ubuntu leadership is, therefore, a humanistic lens that can be applied in every facet of business through what Khoza terms, “a uniting idea and set of caring values”.

The Deeper Learning Institute suggests implementing the following components of ubuntu leadership – applicable in personal, professional, organisational and governmental spheres:

  • Offer an understanding of leadership in relation to the world.
  • Exude principles of caring for each other's well-being and a spirit of mutual support.
  • Move away from the “us and them” mentality prevalent in politics, corporations and traditionally led organisations.

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