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SYMPOSIUM
UBUNTU: A TRANSFORMATIVE LEADERSHIP
PHILOSOPHY
LISA B. NCUBE
Most African countries gained independence in the 1960s.
Countries in southern Africa gained independence still
later: Zimbabwe in 1980, Namibia in 1990, and South
Africa in 1994. Postindependence governments set about
removing distinct legal injustices and societal attitudes in
order to bring all citizens into the mainstream of development and social transformation. This was to ensure
equality, regardless of race, color, creed, political affiliation, or gender. The success of this transformation has,
however, been limited. Africa wrestles with a number of
problems that appear to be insurmountable.
First, the majority of women continue to live under
the same conditions that existed before independence.
Their lives have not changed in spite of significant legal
changes put in place. In many African countries, barriers imposed by colonialism, Christianity, capitalism,
cultural traditions, and the colonial and postcolonial
states continue to curtail the rights of women severely
(Jolly, 1994; Schmidt, 1991).
Second, the new millennium ushered in a wave of
African government conflicts, failures, and scandals.
The complexity, turbulence, and extraordinary changes
of the 21st century have contributed to rapid disintegration of good governance on the African continent.
Increasingly unpredictable and discontinuous change
has become the norm (Suarez & Oliva, 2005). A total
breakdown of ethics, and the uncertainty, ambiguity,
and discontinuity resulting from revolutionary changes,
challenge many African countries (Kessler &
Chakrabarti, 1996).
Third, in many African countries corruption is rife and
organizational ethics almost nonexistent. Organizations
are hobbled by economic policies and new regulations
that favor the chosen few. The citizenry are paralyzed or
derailed by corporate governance indecision as they try to
lead in a volatile global environment. Lack of enforcement of existing laws and regulations and disregard by
those who are well connected is commonplace, making it
very difficult if not impossible for citizens who wish to be
productive and ethical members of society.
In all of this, lack of good leadership is apparent.
A pressing need for Africa is transformative leadership.
This article argues that Ubuntu as a worldview perspective or guiding philosophy holds promise for progressive and ethical change for Africa. It may be a
calming option for social relations in contemporary
Southern African society, when little else seems to work
(van Binsbergen, 2001). Van Binsbergen points out that
Ubuntu helps to overcome insurmountable contradictions, producing some degree of conviviality and in so
doing alleviating tensions and hostilities.
Leadership philosophies have been around for many
years. Few, if any, incorporate indigenous perspectives.
Bekker (2007) argues that “there is a desperate need for
an indigenous, innovative, values-based leadership approach in Africa that will mobilize a wide variety of participants around a common goal” (p. 1). One such
approach is the concept of Ubuntu, a cultural value system or worldview of the Bantu people of Southern
Africa and a word that emerges from the Nguni languages of Southern Africa.
This article seeks to do two things. First, it examines
the concept of Ubuntu as an emerging indigenous leadership philosophy and offers it as a legitimate alternative
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES, Volume. 4, Number 3, 2010
©2010 University of Phoenix
View this journal online at wileyonlinelibrary.com • DOI:1.1002/jls.20182
77
SYMPOSIUM
to Western leadership philosophies. Exploring Ubuntu
as a leadership philosophy diversifies the leadership discourse. Knowledge is not a one-way street. Not all
knowledge resides in the north, to be transferred to the
south as necessary; there is richness in cross-cultural fertilization. Second, it presents an “Ubuntu as leadership
philosophy” framework that shows how Ubuntu can be
applied practically as a leadership model. It concludes
with some summarizing comments.
Ubuntu as a Leadership Philosophy
Ubuntu is a term derived from the Bantu Nguni languages of Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, and Ndebele. It is the
equivalent of the Shona hunhu and can be described as
a social philosophy (van Binsbergen, 2001). Over the
past three decades, Ubuntu has been explored by a host
of scholars as a viable philosophical perspective, particularly in the context of postcolonialism in Southern
Africa (Asante, 1987; Ntibagirirwa, 2009; Prinsloo,
2000; Ramose, 1999; Shutte, 1993; Tracy, 1990; Van der
Merwe, 1996). A number of scholars (among them
Karsten & Illa, 2001, 2005; and Mangaliso, 2001) have
recognized its merits as an approach to management, but
its application to leadership has not been fully appreciated.
Ubuntu forms the core of most traditional African
cultures. It embraces a spirit of caring and community,
harmony and hospitality, respect and responsiveness
(Mangaliso, 2001). It is further described as the capacity for compassion, reciprocity, and dignity (Bekker,
2008). The hallmarks of Ubuntu are harmony and continuity. It is about understanding what it means to be
connected to one another. According to Karsten and Illa
(2005, p. 613). “Ubuntu expresses an African view of
the world anchored in its own person, culture, and society which is difficult to define in a Western context.”
Karsten and Illa (2005) describe how management
philosophies have certain characteristics in common. Likewise, leadership philosophies share certain characteristics.
As with management concepts, leadership philosophies
come in various forms, each with its own appealing name
(for instance, transformational and situational, among
others). Ubuntu certainly fits that mold. As a new term,
it has captivated the imagination of many scholars, as is
seen by the sudden appearance of articles on the subject.
Although most leadership philosophies tend to be
conceptualized from the leader’s perspective, they
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nonetheless recognize the important role of relationships with subordinates or followers. At the heart of
Ubuntu is the relationship with others. Ubuntu encourages humanness and recognizes the sanctity of
human life. No individual is more sacred than another. The respect of another’s basic humanity is absolute.
Developmental leadership philosophies focus on leaders, behaviors, values, and traits. Ubuntu is about the nature of the individual in a leadership role. Even though
traits of Ubuntu may appear at face value to be innate,
they can be cultivated and developed. Leadership philosophies are contextualized in terms of organizations.
Although Ubuntu shares characteristics that “qualify” it as a leadership philosophy, it is distinct on a number of levels from the Western philosophies that have
been in existence for many decades. First, Ubuntu is
basically a cultural value system or worldview and is still
in its emergent and exploratory stages as an articulated
philosophy. Second, Western leadership philosophies
were developed from a Eurocentric perspective; Ubuntu
is indigenous and Afrocentric. It offers a different approach to understanding leadership. Third, Ubuntu invokes traditional cultures. Scholars of leadership now
recognize the importance of including traditional cultural perspectives of leadership. Although Ubuntu is
more than a cultural practice of the Bantu people, as a
leadership philosophy it balances the past (by learning
from it), the present (by examining immediate and
pressing concerns), and the future (by providing a vision). Lastly, as a postcolonial paradigm of leadership,
Ubuntu holds promise for a more inclusive discourse
that embraces historically misinterpreted and marginalized non-Western traditions (van Hensbroek, 2001).
As van Hensbroek (2001, p. 3) eloquently points out,
“The idea of a universal ‘modernity,’ as the predefined
horizon for all of humanity, has lost most of its self-evidence over the past decades.”
Although Ubuntu is the core of African culture, most
African leaders have chosen to deny or ignore it. Notable exceptions are Nelson Mandela, the first president
of independent South Africa; and Sir Seretse Khama,
the first president of independent Botswana. These two
statesmen are embodiments of the principle of Ubuntu,
and their leadership fully demonstrated their traditional
values.
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 4 • Number 3 • DOI:10.1002/jls
SYMPOSIUM
A Framework for Ubuntu as a
Leadership Philosophy
MODELING THE WAY
Based partly on Mbigi’s African Tree concept (1996,
1997), a framework for Ubuntu as leadership philosophy emerges. Leadership in the African context has been
traditionally built on strong relationships, participation,
responsibility, and spiritual authority (van der Colff,
2003). Ubuntu inspires individuals to expose themselves
to others and to encounter the difference of their humanness to inform and enrich their own (Sidane,
1995). A typifying phrase is umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye, meaning that through others one is a person. Van
der Merwe (1996, p. 1) translates the phrase as “To be
human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the
humanity of others in its infinite variety of content and
form.” Louw (2001) argues that this translation of
Ubuntu recognizes a respect for particularity, individuality, and historicity, without which postcolonialism is
not possible.
The Ubuntu respect for the particularities of the beliefs and practices of others is well illustrated by another
common expression, ungumuntu. It translates as “he or
she is person,” implying that the person has humaneness. Here the collective is more important than the individual. For postcolonial southern Africans of all races,
ethnicities, and cultures, Ubuntu recognizes the genuine otherness of all people (Louw, 2001). In other
words, the diversity of people, languages, histories, and
cultures must be recognized and acknowledged.
Another critical aspect of Ubuntu as a social philosophy is the important role that agreement or consensus plays. Louw (2001, p. 15) argues, “Without a
common scale, i.e., without an agreement or consensus
on criteria, the beliefs and practices of the other simply
cannot be judged without violating them.” Ubuntu emphasizes the importance of agreement or consensus.
Malunga (2009) points out that principles of Ubuntu
as leadership philosophy emphasize collectivism and relationships over material things, including ownership of
opportunities, responsibilities, and challenges. At the
core is consideration of the importance of human beings regardless of background. Leadership and decision
making are participatory, transparent, and democratic.
From these principles, a framework for Ubuntu as leadership philosophy framework emerges, as illustrated in
Figure 1.
From a leadership perspective, Ubuntu requires that
leaders model the way for others. As a role model, the
leader legitimizes his or her leadership by a commitment to such African values as honesty, sincerity, truthfulness, compassion, empathy, dignity, and respect for
others (Malunga, 2009). Values reflect the most basic
characteristic of adaptations that guide individuals in
deciding into which situations they should enter and
what they should do in them (Nonis & Swift, 2001).
By committing to ethical behavior, the leader models
ethical values and characteristics for others. One should
not expect others to exhibit ethical behavior if one
cannot oneself demonstrate it. Ethical values are critical
to the success of an enterprise, because they serve to
guide an entrepreneur on ethical issues.
COMMUNAL ENTERPRISE AND A
SHARED VISION
The Ubuntu leadership framework requires that leadership not only inspire a shared vision but also have a vision for the future that offers direction for others.
Enterprise is communal, with the derived benefits
shared rather than accruing to the individual. Outcomes
for the group are more important than individual goals.
At the same time, decision making under the principle
of Ubuntu is circular and inclusive. Polyocular vision, as
opposed to monocular vision, allows for multiple viewpoints, and diversity of perspectives. Differences in what
is normal and acceptable are allowable (Maruyama, 2004).
CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION
Change and transformation are not strong components
of traditional societies. Ironically, however, applying
Ubuntu to leadership contributes to changing and transforming the world. Leaders search for opportunities to
initiate change through people. Rather than being forced
on people, change comes through a process of openness
and transparency; people come to accept change. Decisions to change come by consensus rather than polling,
and there is circularity in the decision-making process.
The process is iterative, and decisions are revised as many
times as necessary before the final one is made. The organization is gradually transformed to meet the challenges of a changing global environment.
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 4 • Number 3 • DOI:10.1002/jls
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SYMPOSIUM
Figure 1. Ubuntu Leadership Framework
Leadership legitimacy
Modeling the way
Set the example
Communal enterprise
and shared vision
inspire a shared vision
Envision the future
Change and
transformation
Search for opportunities
Enlist others
Polyocular vision
Lead change through people
Decisions by consensus and
circularity
Build relationships
Interconnectedness,
interdependency, and
empowerment
Build trust
Foster collaboration and
reciprocity
Strengthen others
Think globally, act locally
Collectivism and solidarity
Environmental consciousness
Social responsibility
Democratic legacy
Recognize contributions
Continuous integrated
development
Celebrate accomplishments
Solidarity and social harmony
Shared rewards
Source: Modified from SAFEmap International (2009).
INTERCONNECTEDNESS,
INTERDEPENDENCY, AND
EMPOWERMENT
An important organizing element of Ubuntu is interconnectedness and interdependency. No man or woman
is an island, and as such it is important for people
in leadership to recognize this aspect. Building
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relationships with others is a hallmark of good leadership in general, but an absolute necessity for Ubuntu. In
building relationships one builds trust, thereby fostering
collaboration and reciprocity. By accepting our interconnectedness, a leader operating from the principles
of Ubuntu will also have the desire to empower others.
Empowerment of others means strengthening others,
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 4 • Number 3 • DOI:10.1002/jls
SYMPOSIUM
allowing them to act on their own initiative and believe
in themselves.
COLLECTIVISM AND SOLIDARIT Y
Another leadership principle derived from the concept
of Ubuntu is the notion of collectivism and solidarity.
The African social culture is generally collectivist, in
which the needs of the community or society trump the
needs of the individual. We can also think of it by way
of the gestalt principle of organization whereby the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A collectivist
mentality encourages teamwork and a noncompetitive
environment. Such an environment promotes solidarity
and a spirit of working together toward common goals
and the good of the organization.
CONTINUOUS INTEGRATED
DEVELOPMENT
Ubuntu requires that leaders develop the capability and
capacity of an organization by cultivating innovation
and obtaining the best from everyone: the development
of human potential. Everyone grows from experience.
Ubuntu challenges the process by searching for opportunities and innovation. The leader who demonstrates
Ubuntu will empower others to act and nurture their
growth and creativity through mentoring and building
relationships. Ubuntu recognizes the contribution of
others, further empowering them.
Conclusions
Many scholars have shown that there is a desperate need
for indigenous and innovative leadership approaches.
Ubuntu is a social philosophy of humanness. It promotes communicative action that can express itself,
whether in entrepreneurship, a business, or other organizations. Ubuntu’s purpose is to redefine social relations so they become more egalitarian, transparent,
and democratic. The emergence of Ubuntu as a leadership philosophy is not meant to replace Western leadership philosophies but to add to the diversity and
richness of the discourse. As a postcolonial paradigm of
leadership, Ubuntu allows for more inclusive discourse
on leadership, incorporating other traditions that have
been marginalized.
The Ubuntu leadership philosophy framework shows
how Ubuntu can be applied practically as a leadership
model. First and foremost, it is necessary that leadership models the way, leading by example and doing the
right things. Enterprise is communal, and vision is
shared. Group outcomes trump those of the individual.
Change and transformation are important leadership
traits of Ubuntu as they allow organizations to adjust
to meet the challenges of a changing global environment. Collectivism encourages teamwork and a noncompetitive environment, building solidarity and
loyalty within the organization. Through continuous
integrated development, Ubuntu empowers others to
develop and grow. Ubuntu will help put in place leadership structures that are appropriate and relevant to
the African context and that may offer a different approach in other contexts: “Ubuntu will show a way to
work together and will create a rainbow mentality in
our organizations characterized by a high degree of cultural, racial, religious, tribal, and political tolerance”
(Mbigi, 1997, p. 8).
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Lisa B. Ncube is Assistant Professor in the Department of
Organizational Leadership, College of Technology, Purdue
University. She received her doctorate in Curriculum and
Instruction from Purdue University. She can be reached
at [email protected]
JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES • Volume 4 • Number 3 • DOI:10.1002/jls
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