A couple of months back, when I was spending some time with our team in Argentina, it was wonderful to see a renewed sense of purpose, teamwork and cohesion in the team. The various team members talked about a company culture built on respect, trust, sharing, caring and empathy. When I discussed with Anand, our business head for the region and Hernan, our HR head there, about the transformation that they were enabling, they mentioned that they had been inspired by an African philosophy called Ubuntu.
Intrigued, I spent the last few weeks learning more about this remarkable philosophy. My colleagues and friends in Africa tell me that it is difficult to describe Ubuntu in words. The word, that has its origins in the Bantu languages of Southern Africa, means “humanity to others’ and can be loosely translated as ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.
Across other African countries as well – “Obuntu” in Uganda and Tanzania, “Unhu” in Zimbabwe, the name differs slightly – but the concept remains much the same. And that is, no human being exists alone; we are all interconnected, and each of us derives meaning from the people that surround us. This simple idea captures a powerful philosophy—a way of life based on love, connection, humanity, unity and optimism.
As we pause at the start of a new year, to reflect, hope and plan, it’s worth taking the time to explore the Ubuntu way and what we can draw from it.
It’s possible, that at first, you might think Ubuntu is less relevant for the world we know today. The ideas of individualism and personal ambition are so deeply entrenched that a more collective approach may be unrealistic. Whether it is at our corporate workplaces or even with our families and communities, there seems to be a constant struggle between the ‘me’ and ‘us’. How do you choose? What do you prioritise? Is there a way to reconcile all of it?
But the beauty of Ubuntu is that it doesn’t ask you to choose. Instead, what it says is this—while it’s wonderful to have the freedom to pursue your personal goals and dreams, it’s also important to remember that no man or woman is an island.
This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself; rather, it encourages opening up and connecting with others in a caring and authentic way, thereby increasing everyone’s overall success and happiness.
Ubuntu was probably best captured by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who believed deeply in the value of Ubuntu and popularised it through his book, No Future Without Forgiveness:
“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human…. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.’ A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole…”
There are various ways to incorporate the core principles of Ubuntu in the way you approach your relationships. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Celebrate your peers
Contrary to a narrow perspective of success, corporate life is not a zero-sum game: in order for you to win, others don’t have to lose. It is possible, even desirable, for us to grow and succeed together, which means your peers’ victories are cause for celebration—not anxiety and envy. Appreciating each other’s achievements goes a long way in creating a spirit of collective positivity and support.
At Godrej, we encourage appreciation through events and processes—but you don’t have to wait for someone else to take the lead. If you think someone did a great job, go ahead and let them know! Write a congratulatory note, mention it in the next team meeting, or simply tell them in person. I feel that a lot of us tend to overthink this particular step, waiting for the ‘right’ moment—when the truth of the matter is that there is no ‘wrong’ moment to a celebrate someone’s achievements. The Ubuntu philosophy, too, values spontaneous expressions of support and goodwill. So, if you have something positive to say about a colleague, don’t over-analyse it or hold back—just tell them. You’d be surprised by how far this gesture can go.
2. Obsess over your consumers, not your competitors
Nobel Prize-winning author André Gide once said “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to step away from the shore”. Don’t use competitors as a barometer of success. While it is good to learn from competitors, competitive analysis should just be a point of reference. Direct your attention on understanding consumers and assessing how you can uniquely address their needs. Focus on developing the market, expanding categories and harnessing white spaces. It’s easier to imitate competitors. However, sustainable success comes from charting your own distinctive path.
Author Gabor George Burt says it very well:
“One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is about The Zax imaginary creatures who can only go in one specific direction and are very stubborn. In the story, two Zax, one southbound, the other headed north, happen to bump into each other in the middle of the desert, each perfectly blocking the other’s path. Neither of the two is willing to budge, expecting the other to get out of the way first. And they remain there, nose to nose, obsessed with winning the standoff. They become so preoccupied with and consumed by each other’s presence that they don’t notice the world passing them by — which it does. A new highway is built right around them in the desert. As Dr. Seuss puts it: “And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax. And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.” Make sure that your strategy doesn’t resemble that of a Zax, otherwise you risk getting left behind in the desert”.
3. Lead the Ubuntu way
Boyd Varty, a South African environment and literacy activist, in his compelling TED Talk on Ubuntu, pays homage to the father of his nation: “Nelson Mandela said often that the gift of prison was the ability to go within and to think, to create within himself the things he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, harmony. Through this act of intense open-heartedness, he was to become the embodiment of what in South Africa we call Ubuntu.”
Indeed, in its post-apartheid days, South Africa leaned heavily on this ancient philosophy. In the 1990s, the country was poised on the brink of chaos. Instead of giving in to the desire for payback, however, Mandela and other leaders steered South Africa towards healing and unity. In fact, the truth and reconciliation commission was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Interim Constitution of the country echoes his sentiments: “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization.”
As leaders who want to build unified and high-performing teams and create win-win situations within our organisations, this is really worth reflecting on. You can apply the Ubuntu philosophy in your leadership style and approach. Some questions that are useful to introspect on:
- What you can do to become a more compassionate leader? How do you deepen relationships and build a higher level of emotional connection with your team members? How can you create an environment that enables your team members to thrive?
- How will you foster much greater collaboration in your teams? How can you reinforce greater team work and sharing of resources across functions and regions? How can you instil more respect and empathy in how your team members interact with each other?
- How do you ensure that everyone feels included and participates fully? What can you do differently to communicate more openly and honestly?
The spirit you need to inculcate as a leader is that “I need you, you need me and at the end of the day we all benefit”. Everyone should feel accountable for the greater good of the organisation than individual self-interests.
4. Pass it forward
Former US President Bill Clinton and founder of the Clinton Foundation, talks about the philosophy of Ubuntu in his philanthropic work: “So Ubuntu—for us it means that the world is too small, our wisdom too limited, our time here too short, to waste any more of it in winning fleeting victories at other people’s expense. We have to now find a way to triumph together.”
Caring for and about others in the community is a central value of Ubuntu. Our Godrej Good & Green philosophy talks about running our business responsibly and doing our part for sustainable and inclusive growth. So, use business as a force for good. Become an important change agent in your communities. Let’s be galvanised by a higher purpose that serves, aligns and integrates the interests of all of our stakeholders.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.