Dave's Ponderings on
Ubuntu and Resilience
"If I had not been in prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life and that is changing yourself." - Nelson Mandela
In my last Pondering, I closed with the thought that organizational resilience is never a journey taken alone or in isolation. In that vein, let’s explore the African concept of personhood known as Ubuntu and how it can be foundational for strengthening organizational resilience in complex environments. The context for this discussion will be my own experience and training in economics as a behavioral science and how it can impede synergy (the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) and the creative power of the “whole.”
The literal English translation for ubuntu is … “I am because you are; You are because I am.” It is an African cultural worldview of what it means to be human, or what is the essence of being human.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking on the subject has offered ...
“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World…”
The cultural aspect of Ubuntu has resonated with many people and NGOs headquartered in the North (Europe, North America, etc.). It has become a value laden concept with an aspirational orientation. However, it has very rich and practical organizational development and resilience implications as well. The late Chiku Malunga, PhD, of Malawi, was probably the world’s first indigenous wisdom based organizational development practitioner with a passion to see organizations improve their performance using Ubuntu. He integrated Ubuntu and African parables in his practice and publications and merged them with other globally accepted organizational development philosophies.
While there is a lot of organizational development and resilience work that has been done exploring distributed leadership, employee empowerment, continuous learning, restructuring and the like, it generally starts with “doing”. What is done, how it is done, how to do it better, who does it, how to find the optimal balance of resources (labor, capital, etc.). I was trained that labor (people) was an input or factor of producing (“doing”) goods and services. Other factors could eventually be found to substitute for labor (people), depending on the projected cost of the various factors over time. People generally start out as being viewed as assets, but over time could come to be seen as liabilities. And liabilities are something to be reduced.
I was trained that labor (people) was an input or factor of producing (“doing”) goods and services. Other factors could eventually be found to substitute for labor (people), depending on the projected cost of the various factors over time.
In this view of the world, what we do and how we do it determines who we relate with, and how. With who we relate and how, often defines how others see us and how we view ourselves. In essence, our self-worth as a person is ultimately determined by what we do. In complex environments, socialized behaviors that come out of this train of thinking can impede rapid learning and co-creation by implicitly empowering certain people and viewpoints over others (while also creating fractured and compartmentalized lives).
My journey of awareness and addressing the contradiction of my belief in people versus system practice can be visualized in my traveling the "U" of Figure 1.
Figure 1. Traveling the "U". Adapted from Otto Scharmer and Chiku Malunga.
My epiphany occurred when I was able to recognize that I was contributing to a system unable to change other than incrementally by being caught in a structure focused on doing and not on systemic re-imagining based on what was our purpose (source) for being. Who I thought I was based on what I believed and who I actually was based on my actions were two different people. Once I made this hard realization, significant organizational transformation was possible with the people already involved.
Positive change occurs when people realize that often who they think they are and who they actually are are frequently two different people.
“If I had not been in prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.” – Nelson Mandela
My journey up the right side of the “U” took me through the same venues as the journey down the left side, just in an order that melded my beliefs and my actions to allow systemic change and growth in me and those around me. I offer Malunga’s explanation of Ubuntu coupled with my journey up the right side of the “U” and some African parables for further understanding.
Being: Your essential personhood and your individual capacity. For organizations, it is the collective personhood of the people in the organization and their capacity and resilience. It is what makes synergistic relationships possible within and without the organization. You cannot provide in relating and doing what you do not have in your being.
The river that forgets its source will soon dry up
Relating: Understanding a person’s mindset is key to unlocking their potential. To gain this understanding, trust and mutual respect are required.
Investing time, money and energy in its people and their development is the way an organization and its leadership develop collective resilience and demonstrates commitment to being people centered. It shows that the organization is interested in the people as people, not merely as things or resources (cogs in a wheel) for achievement of its goals.
Ubuntu is built on five interrelated people-centered relational principles:
Sharing and collective ownership of opportunities, responsibilities and challenges;
The importance of people and relationships over things;
Participatory leadership and decision-making;
Reconciliation as a goal of conflict management
It is better to be surrounded by people than to be surrounded by things
Doing: The results an organization produces are derived directly from its doing, but …
Judge each day not by its harvest but by the seeds you sow into it
Each seed produces its own kind. The harvest is a reflection of the seeds that were sown. If we are happy with the harvest, we need to sow more seeds of the same. If we are not happy with the harvest, we need to change the seeds we sow. Linking harvest and seed is a skill not often practiced. We get caught up celebrating the harvest of success, forgetting what produced that harvest in the first place. We get caught up complaining about the harvest of failure, forgetting or not linking with what produced the harvest of failure in the first place.
A key to successfully doing is to take a reflective stance. This practice enables one to consciously link the results one is observing to their causes or seeds. It enables reinforcing action and improvement in the case of a desired harvest, and corrective action in the case of a less than desired harvest.
If you really want to go to Mount Olympus make sure every step you make takes you nearer there - Socrates
Resilient organizations are composed of resilient people. Resilient people are not just factors of production, but have intrinsic value and worth. Factors of production do not contribute to co-creation and agile change. Valued colleagues who we invest in do.
Until next time, I wish for you a resilient and flourishing life and organization!
Next up: Resilient organizations and transformational change