I visit South Africa each year with a group of adult and high school volunteers with the Simunye Project to do service work in some of the most impoverished places on the planet. While I was there in 2013, the year of Mandela’s passing, I got thinking about his lessons for us as leaders. I never actually met Mandela but I did bump into him once quite literally at the Wanderers Cricket Ground in Johannesburg. I wasn’t concentrating on where I was going and he had just come out of the players’ change rooms when we bumped shoulders. (Somehow I had got through his security cordon). I apologised and we moved on. He smiled, didn’t say anything wise or profound and I went to a kiosk to by my Coke and ice cream.
I have met people who did know Mandela and common themes emerge. He was humble, kind, firm, courageous, visionary and a brilliant tactician. He had the ability to make people feel special and the acute ability to be fully present with an individual This was a man who spent time with prisoners, old foes, enemies, kings, queens, presidents and children (who he loved).
When he shook your hand and looked into your eyes, it was as though you were all he knew. It seemed he could be fully present and engage in the moment. Perhaps this ability was culturally borne and emerged from the South African way of greeting which involves a gentle handshake, a prolonged holding of hands and a promise to ‘see’ the other person and to be in the moment. Wonderfully, this still occurs today even in the midst of the fast-paced world we live in.
Mandela has also left the world and South Africa the legacy of love and forgiveness; qualities he so vividly expressed as he worked tirelessly to free South Africans form apartheid. But there was greater depth to this freedom that brought on incredible changes in South Africa.
Mandela lived the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu recognises that human beings need each other for well-being. A person is only a person through other persons. In order to survive and thrive, we must care for one another. As humans we have an instinct to care and a natural impulse toward goodness. At times we may do things that are heartless and cruel, but our essence is good; it is our essential quality. To lead with goodness and a desire to see the good in others unleashes the potential in individuals. Our paradigm, or the lenses through which we see our world, impact on our behaviours. If we see people us having limited ability, intelligence or skills, the results we experience will be a reflection of our belief system. To shift our paradigms to seeing the best in others, believing in their goodness, striving to unleash their strengths will create greater results for our teams.
An organisation with Ubuntu at its core is a community where the success of the group is considered above the success of the individual. People understand that they are ‘all in it together’. There is a culture of support, teamwork, camaraderie and a sense of connection with others. People are willing to help each other. For example, a colleague who is under pressure trying to meet a deadline will
find herself supported by her colleagues who take the load off her in other areas so she can finish her reports. The spirit of Ubuntu is in essence captured by the word ‘community’.
Employees are happier and more motivated in organisations with an Ubuntu philosophy because they feel valued and trust their leaders. The leaders in the organisation do not see themselves as superior to others; they simply have a title. Leaders seek to promote the wellbeing of others through their day-to-day interactions and company policies. They know their people not just as employees but as real people with real lives. They develop a genuine interest in each person. These leaders understand that by engaging or ‘seeing’ the other person in an authentic manner releases a powerful positive energy. For example, a company’s manager spends each day walking around making sure he engages in conversation with his employees not just about work but about their families and interests. He makes sure he touches base with as many people as possible during the day and finds that eating lunch in the cafeteria rather than at his desk promotes comfortable and natural conversations.
Organisations with the Ubuntu spirit will feel different. Leaders in these organisations do not allow differences to define a relationship. They understand that by doing so they would always be at odds with others. For example a leader would be asking, “What do we have in common?”, and “How can we best work together to achieve success?” This type of leader will think about every member of the team as being someone she wants to have succeed. She will be driven by the desire to value and find something positive about her staff. This attitude releases an energy that delivers authentic success in terms of relationships and results.
Certainly, on the Simunye Project, we feel this sense of togerthness and oneness with the people we meet and work with. And, perhaps if I had shared a coke and ice cream with Mandela, he may have told me the importance of Ubuntu and that great leadership rests on key values: unconditional love, kindness, friendliness, care, compassion, and forgiveness, and the ability to always recognise the inherent goodness in all people.