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Ubuntu as a path to inclusive leadership in sub-Saharan Africa

Recognising the significance of emotions in leadership can pave the way for more holistic, inclusive and emancipatory theories of management. Understanding the value that the principles of Ubuntu bring to corporate life helps organisations evolve into more inclusive and purpose-driven entities.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of globalisation, multinational corporations have witnessed their influence stretch across borders in previously unimaginable ways. Operating in diverse contexts has become a daily concern for corporate giants, and adapting to local realities in different countries is a crucial aspect of business strategy.

Despite decades of development and progress in the corporate sector, a profound divide persists between the representatives of developed and developing nations, particularly in the area of corporate leadership talent and its development. This division often results in senior leaders from developed countries being dispatched to lead projects or business units in developing nations, necessitating collaboration with local teams in contexts that are vastly different from their own experiences and understanding.

This carries a high risk for causing technically and functionally brilliant leaders to falter in developing countries, primarily because of their inability to contextualise the value of their contributions within unfamiliar circumstances. These leaders struggle to immerse themselves in local contexts, to comprehend issues from alternative perspectives and to apply cultural intelligence to effectively lead in unfamiliar territory.

Cultural meaning systems: Ubuntu’s influence

A profound philosophy, Ubuntu is embedded as a societal value within sub-Saharan Africa. It shapes how individuals within a range of societies make sense of their surroundings. The philosophy has been observed to permeate the cultural meaning systems of employees within organisations operating in the region. 

Multinational corporations often encounter Ubuntu’s cultural influence as being in stark contrast to westernised cultures. This dichotomy arises for two principal reasons: first, as leaders in multinationals compete on a global stage, they engage primarily with westernised cultures, often led by leaders from developed, westernised backgrounds. Second, leaders in southern Africa sometimes translate predominantly westernised thinking into their business practices, influenced by an education system steeped in western-infused management philosophies.

Historically, leadership in Southern Africa has been shaped by two distinct influences: indigenous African worldviews and imported western perspectives. The traditional and cultural leadership in tribal areas included chiefs at the apex of the hierarchy. Though informal, their authority was widely recognised within the tribe. 

Western influence on leadership can be traced back to the colonisation of the region, first by the Netherlands and later by England. Much of African history has been narrated through the lens of colonisers who, driven by self-interest and a lack of cultural understanding, produced a one-sided and biased account of events. 

This paradigm dominated the political landscape during the apartheid era and extended its reach into corporate South Africa and the public sector. The enduring impact of this legacy cannot be separated from the discourse on cross-cultural leadership in sub-Saharan Africa, as unresolved issues from the birth of a democratised South Africa in 1994 continue to inform regressive societal and organisational leadership dynamics.

Throughout history, beliefs have often been moulded by prejudice rather than concrete evidence. It is self-evident that societal values alone do not account for issues such as poverty and wealth. Colonialism’s enduring legacy has played a substantial role in shaping societal structures and economic realities in the region. But stereotypes and preconceived notions persist, perpetuating among others the false idea that African poverty can be attributed to laziness, the suppression of individualism, and irrationality. This disregards the profound impact of colonisation.

Botswana’s model of success

Botswana, Africa’s longest continuous democracy, offers a compelling example of how indigenous culture can drive economic success. Seretse Khama’s leadership was instrumental in Botswana’s transition from English rule and South African apartheid influence in 1966. Botswana, now a sociopolitically stable and economically vibrant country, has embraced a parliamentary democracy built on a multiparty system rooted in the chieftaincy systems that have existed for centuries. 

This system is heavily influenced by the underlying philosophy of Kgotla, characterised by principles of democracy, inclusiveness and open dialogue. Chiefs in Botswana continue to exert influence, serving as a check on inappropriate actions in government. Botswana’s example demonstrates that economic prosperity can be built upon indigenous culture, a stark contrast to the dominance of foreign models in many other African countries, especially within the realm of business culture.

Rethinking leadership through indigenous perspectives

The realm of leadership and management theory has been predominantly shaped by the writings of early 20th-century western scholars, deeply influenced by economics and classical sociology. This perspective centrally emphasises logic and a masculine archetype and minimises sensemaking, instinct and emotions. 

Recent scholarship has shed light on the biases embedded in these theories. Human beings are not solely rational and transaction-oriented creatures; we are also guided by emotions and communal instincts. Recognising the significance of emotions in leadership can pave the way for more holistic, inclusive and emancipatory theories of management. Eastern philosophies have already demonstrated their positive impact in areas such as business process management and emotional intelligence.

Dr Reuel Khoza stands as one of the pioneering thought leaders who have operationalised the Ubuntu philosophy as a conceptual framework for interpersonal relationships and leadership. His book, Ubuntu Botho – African Humanism, aimed to reposition African ideas of communalism and humanism as fundamental to philosophies found on the continent, extending these principles into corporate life. Ubuntu, originating from the isiZulu language, encapsulates the aphorism, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which translates to “a person is a person because of or through other people”. 

Desmond Tutu beautifully encapsulated this philosophy by emphasising that none of us enters the world fully formed; we become human through our interactions with other human beings.

Ubuntu’s ancient roots are traced to central Africa, where it emerged in the earliest societies. As different groups migrated across the continent, they carried the Ubuntu philosophy with them. 

Today, Ubuntu philosophy lies at the heart of how organisations can evolve into more inclusive and purpose-driven entities. It finds expression in open innovation platforms, where individuals collaborate externally to navigate fast-changing business landscapes. This interconnectedness fosters a social organisational culture that promotes personal growth, communal achievement, and shared aspirations. 

Expressing mutual values such as compassion, reciprocity, and humanity becomes the key to success in online communities and beyond.

The levels of Ubuntu

Johann Broodryk, the first person to receive a PhD in Ubuntu, published a seminal work on the Ubuntu philosophy and its application in modern business. He captured the essence of Ubuntu and explained how it can serve as a management philosophy in contemporary organisations. 

Later, the principles of Ubuntu were further elucidated by Vuyisile Msila through his notion of the “5Ps of Ubuntu,” which encompass people-centeredness, permeable walls, partisanship, progeny and productivity.

Traditional western management systems have been guided by misapplied economic assumptions about human nature, often focusing on self-interest as the ultimate driver of behaviour. Subsequently this self-interest may lead to employees wanting to earn as much as possible while contributing as little as possible. 

In general, organisational culture, a product of leadership style and decisions, systems, policy and process, influences employee engagement, and this system needs to be explored to articulate the inherent cultural dynamics (values, leadership style, levels of engagement and behaviour and the symbols influencing how things get done).

Post-colonial theoretical perspectives critically examine the far-reaching impacts of European colonial rule on various aspects of society. They challenge prevailing notions of power structures, amplify marginalised viewpoints and advocate for a more balanced representation of history. Understanding leadership and relationships in South Africa necessitates an examination of the country’s post-colonial history and each leader’s personal connection to it. This requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and the pursuit of personal mastery, as postulated by Peter Senge.

Personal mastery is a journey of deepening self-identity, emotional awareness, patience and objective reality perception. It entails a keen awareness of one’s mental models, the deeply ingrained assumptions and biases shaping one’s worldview. Management decisions often reflect organisational intentions, while individual paradigms inform how those messages are interpreted. Therefore, leaders must consciously scrutinise their beliefs and perceptions, recognising these factors’ profound influence on their behaviour and outcomes.

Navigating the legacy of colonialism

Colonisation of Africa commenced in the 15th century, with different European nations leaving their distinct marks on the continent. Africa became a strategic asset, coveted for its trading posts and abundant natural resources. However, this era was marked by an inherent power imbalance between colonists and indigenous populations, leading to enduring legacies of marginalisation and inequality. The process of decolonisation unfolded differently in various African countries, further shaping the post-colonial landscape.

Leaders in Africa and those operating within its context face a multitude of challenges, from economic and political instability to limited infrastructure and disparities in access to technology. Cultural diversity and the historical baggage of colonisation also exert a profound influence on leadership dynamics. The lingering perceptions of poor governance, corruption and overt racism, alongside an oversimplified belief that societal values determine poverty and wealth, complicate leadership efforts in the region.

Countries in southern Africa have demonstrated commendable transitions to democracy and boast admirable constitutions. However, little has changed in terms of economic empowerment and patterns of wealth accumulation. 

While legislative measures and political changes have fostered a more diverse middle class, economic disparities remain entrenched. An increase in the registration of Black-owned businesses may deflect from the reality that many new businesses fail and the reality that there has been a limited rise in Black management control. Black women continue to face marginalisation, with low representation in business ownership and leadership positions. These challenges persist despite legislation aimed at promoting transformation.

Leadership is inherently context-specific, shaped by the environment in which it operates. African leaders and those operating within African contexts must navigate sometimes extraordinarily unstable economic and political landscapes while addressing a plethora of challenges. These challenges include the need for socially and environmentally responsible practices addressing long-standing poverty and inequality, limited education and healthcare infrastructure, disparities in technological access, cultural diversity and the enduring legacy of colonisation. These factors contribute to complex leadership dynamics marked by authoritarianism, over-reliance on positional authority, marginalisation, bias, and the perpetuation of “in-groups”.

Responsible leadership operates at four interconnected levels, starting with authentic self-leadership. It emphasises transformational, ethical, and servant leadership in relationships with others; values-based leadership within organisations; and a systems perspective that views the world of work as an interconnected value chain in the ecosystem. Responsible leadership extends beyond individual organisations to broader society and the world, embodying principles of stewardship. In this context, Ubuntu philosophy finds resonance, promoting values such as trust, cooperation, communication, information sharing, reciprocity and resilience.

Leaders operating within the sub-Saharan African context recognise the value of social capital, a concept gaining prominence in management theory. Social capital encompasses shared values, trust, cooperation, communication, information sharing, reciprocity and resilience within a group of individuals in an organisation. It fosters mutual benefit, but its impact can take on a darker dimension when relationships foster corruption and diminish the value of social capital, particularly in contexts characterised by political interference.

The development of social capital involves creating new connections, enhancing relational dynamics and recognising collective identity through shared language and meaning-making. In the South African context, collective identity has the potential to influence power dynamics and force organisations into disruptive change.

The influence of indigenous perspectives within societies where western-dominated organisational cultures operate places a responsibility on global leaders to remain mindful of potential tensions and to critically examine their own beliefs that shape decision-making and relationships. Ultimately, cohesive engagement requires the deliberate creation of organisational cultures that harness the collective strengths of all cultural paradigms, fostering awareness and sensemaking throughout the business architecture and relationships.

The path to inclusive leadership in sub-Saharan Africa is a multifaceted journey, where indigenous philosophies such as Ubuntu can play a pivotal role in reshaping organisational cultures and promoting holistic leadership. As the region continues to grapple with the legacies of colonisation and persistent challenges, responsible leadership that embraces diversity and shared values offers a promising avenue for progress. By recognising the interconnectedness of all individuals and communities, leaders can navigate the complex terrain of sub-Saharan Africa with empathy, compassion and a commitment to positive change. DM

Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus is a senior lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School.


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  • James Webster says:

    It’s would be vastly amusing, if it wasn’t so pathetic, that the pseudo-philosophical ubuntu is so desperate for relevance that it is now attempting to insinuate its way – cancer like – into business. It is worth noting that many of the more vocal advocates of ubuntu are the same individuals who are so intimately involved in the corruption and embezzlement pervading South African culture. If ubuntu is so powerful and meaningful, why are its followers so uninspiring, selfish and dishonest and the same sociopathic mob that rape SA at every opportunity. It is no coincidence that ubuntu emerged from a culture that is morally bankrupt, barbaric ( think necklacing ) and limited to a ruined subcontinent. This is hardly a philosophy that has anything novel to offer a world which has over 98 more morally trustworthy philosophies to choose from. This is a plastic me-too wanna-be ideology based on some infantile “thought” that only its advocates see as compelling and it is continually undermined by the immorality of its oh-so-vocal but oh-so-feebleminded followers. The world does not need ( nor want ) another half-baked two-bit philosophy from a backward continent whose intellectual and philosophical achievements can be stuffed in a thimble with room to spare. Ubuntu in no way informs the morality of its disciples so of what value are its precepts anyway ? Ubuntu should rather be flushed away because it’s not worth the two squares of toilet paper it’s scribbled on.

  • Con Tester says:

    No. “Ubuntu,” however admirable the original meaning and intent behind the word may be, is a mantra uttered by people who want something, typically by tugging at others’ heartstrings.

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