From baked goods to babysitting. From construction to original works of art. From after school jobs to selling poinsettia plants. Our Simunye Project students have been hard at work. To date, they’ve raised over $10,000 to support the education, building and food donations for this year’s trip. We’re making progress but we’re aiming high and working hard to fundraise more. See our donation page for all the ways you can support our trip. The more we raise, the more good we can do!
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.
I don’t often read teen fiction, really, but when I saw how mesmerised my daughter was with the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, I decided to have a closer look. I cheated a little and watched the movie of the first book and could see why young people would love the series. In fact in March 2012, Amazon announced that Collins had become the best-selling Kindle eBook author of all time.
If you are not familiar with the Hunger Games concept let me explain. Very broadly it’s about control from the top and survival of the fittest. The novel deals with the struggle for self preservation. People are pitted against each other in a conflict that mostly results in death. It sounds gruesome but it is very captivating. The characters have to call on their very best and innovative hunting and survival skills in order to stay alive.
This got me thinking about which is the best culture for innovation to occur in. Whilst on the Simunye Project, we have to be innovative. We have minimal resources, serious time pressures and a very challenging environment. That is not dissimilar to our competitive work places and volatile global ecosystem. So, is it the ‘Hunger Games’ culture or is it an Ubuntu culture where innovation thrives?
Ubuntu means “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is an ancient African philosophy. Archbishop Tutu describes it like this: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole ….”
In essence it is a supportive culture where people strive to collaborate. They see this approach as the ultimate winning strategy. An open communication and support of others drives a free flow of ideas. With a free flow of ideas comes a confidence to air opinions, examine processes and critique old ways of doing things. Ideas come from everywhere. An Ubuntu culture has a strong foundation of moral decency, fairness and goodness. People are held accountable when they do not act in accordance with these values.
In an Ubuntu culture there is a lack of ego. Ego brings with it a feeling of lack and separateness. Lack because if you have a good idea and I don’t, then I am lacking in good ideas. In Ubuntu, the fact that you have a good idea is celebrated and I will do my utmost to support you (which will include forthright feedback) because together we are better. The separateness is felt because ego isolates. It draws you into a protectionist zone where you feel the need to fiercely defend your turf. This is indicative of a scarcity mentality. Ubuntu promotes an abundance mentality.
Such an organisation is defined by a flat structure with weak boundaries between departments and a low emphasis on hierarchy. Multi disciplinary teams, virtual teams, integrated project teams and the like are examples of forms that contribute to innovation. In some organisations time (15% like at 3M) and space (offices that are conducive to thinking and collaboration) is given to foster ideas. Serendipity is a key factor to new ideas cropping up. Simply sitting in an innovation team being forced to think of new ideas seldom has the desired results. However, the ability to capture the ideas and incubate them is a key feature of an Ubuntu organsiation that seeks to promote creative and collaborative thought.
What of a ‘Hunger Games’ organisation? Such an organisation is not devoid of moral standards nor is it polar opposite to an Ubuntu one. It is simply different. It is survival of the fittest, where political astuteness, resilience, self belief and belief in the idea enable survival.
Ideas survive because the holder of them has the resilience to fight against a culture that isn’t naturally supportive of fresh ideas. Such companies are not devoid of innovative ideas. They exist but struggle to get the surface and battle to come to fruition. Why? Because the organisation doesn’t have a culture of being open to new ideas. It may be that hierarchies and egos create barriers. People are fiercely protective of their own turf (departments) and struggle to see support a new innovation unless they see the benefits to them and their team. The downside is that only a few ideas ever surface. The upside is those ideas that do have been through a ‘keyhole’ experience where they have been squeezed, pushed around, tested, denied access and in the process become tougher and more durable. These ideas survive largely because of the resilience and passion of the innovator. The downside? Innovators leave taking their ideas with them. The upside? Those that stay will continue to innovate as they have renewed self confidence in their ability to make things happen and the confidence of others. And only the best and most profitable ideas survive.
Where do you see your team’s or company’s culture? What is the best culture for innovation? Is it somewhere in the middle? Is an open and ego-less culture requisite for great ideas to flourish, or should they go through the keyhole experience to make them rich and hardy?
You may not even want to consider this but instead put your feet up and read the trilogy to see what all the fuss is about!
By Peter Dry 2017
The Simunye Project US works to improve the lives of under privileged communities in South Africa by focusing on three main areas of support: education, health and new and renovation building. Visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SImunyeProgrectUS/ to learn how you can help us make a lasting and positive change in the world.