Sawubona! – Leadership lessons from the Ubuntu philosophy of ukubona

Sawubona! – Leadership lessons from the Ubuntu philosophy of ukubona by Sello Helepi


If it is true that everything rises and falls on leadership, then leadership rises and falls on its ability to see, to show, to be seen (i.e. visibility), to be shown and to continuously improve. The time has come for South Africa to host the most spectacular event in the globe in 2010. The eyes of the world are on Africa. One may ask, what leadership lessons the world can learn from Africa, especially from the richness of ubuntu and its diverse cultures to improve global responses to the challenges facing leadership.


Here in South Africa, the home of great leaders like Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Stephen Bantu Biko, Queen Manthatisi, King Moshoeshoe, King Phalo ka Tshiwo and King Shaka, when the nguni people greet one another the greeter says, “sawubona!” which means “we see you!” and the response is, “yebo, sawubona!” which means “yes, we also see you!”  This is not just a greeting but a mutual affirmation to one another that you are visible, seen and significant to me. Borrowing from this Nguni language greeting let us examine the powerful leadership lessons that can be learnt from this ubuntu philosophy of ukubona.


  1. 1.      Ukuboniswa – To be shown


Ukuboniswa is about the ability of leadership to learn from others. Any leadership needs the humility and the ability to be taught. In order to learn from others leadership must have the humility to listen to others and allow themselves to be shown other views, options and scenarios which the leader has not considered. This may be different from all that the leadership has known and believed, but openness to other options is so critical to scenario building and it strengthens choices for strategic actions.


Most failed leaders think that they do not need anyone to show them anything and become arrogant about their ignorance of new ideas and other alternatives. Effective leadership on the other hand is open to other alternatives, diversity of thinking and views to inform and strengthen their final choices. The leadership’s original idea is always enriched by exercising this ability to be shown in order to grow and become better.


Opening the possibility that what the leadership knows may not be the whole opens up so many opportunities for growth beyond imagination. Always test your ability to be shown and to listen and to open yourself to other possibilities you might have not thought about before.


  1. 2.      Ukubona – To see


After a leader has been shown the possibilities they are now able to see clearly and to start crafting a vision for the team. Leadership in most instances does not have a compelling vision for the future it is seeking to create especially for society. Where leadership does not have such a strong and compelling vision which is informed by pragmatism or having been shown (ukuboniswa) there is despair in the organization or society. The organization or society being led does not have a sense of anything in the future painted by leadership pulling them to move towards.


The ability of leadership to articulate and communicate an inspiring shared vision is critical to creating a forward momentum. In politics, African governments need to articulate an inspiring shared democratic dream to their populace. In economics, business leaders also need to clearly articulate an inspiring vision of a shared future for all the players in the economic arena – from employees, shareholders, communities, customers to creditors. When this is done well, business will drive social change and bring about economic justice without government intervention. But when business does not see and articulate this vision which will be appealing to both the rich and the poor, government step into the space to create interventions which sometimes are informed by dogmatic ideologies.


  1. 3.      Ukubonana – To see each other


I see you and you see me, and we recognize each other and each other’s contributions which may be often different. Ukubonana is the recognition of diversity and the strength that diversity brings to leadership. The richness and strength of Africa is its diversity of people, languages and cultures, and yet Africa has suffered many years of wars and conquer based on the differences which were not harnessed. When leadership fails to recognize and see the strength and contribution of diversity national economies, companies and society suffer.


Effective leadership must encourage and harness diversity of thought, opinions, views, cultures and many other dynamics to achieve continuous improvement and sustainability. Many wars in the world have been fought, many genocides committed, great partnerships in business gone sour, relationships ended unceremoniously and many economies destroyed because of the lack of ukubonana.


  1. 4.      Ukubonisana – To show each other


Ukubonisana is the process of engagement, sharing, best practice sharing and benchmarking. The challenge is to be able to learn and exchange ideas, views and lessons. Every ideology has some elements of what works and what does not work. Being pragmatic in how solutions to problems and execution of programmes are approached takes what works from each one of the ideologies; learning from it and making it work for leadership effectiveness in the here and now.


Today the challenge to overcoming world problems is doing what works and not being dogmatic in approach where effectiveness and performance is sacrificed on the alter of doctrine. Leaders who have the ability to transcend their long held dogma are always on an exciting journey of discovery, learning and continuous improvement. For example, the 2010 FIFA World Cup was an opportunity for Africa to learn from others while at the same time teaching others. After the world cup, the fight against poverty, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS must have been half-won because South Africa would have learned from the many people, groups and nations who came to our shores.


Most leaders stumble on this aspect of “ukubonisana”. They want to teach others but they are not prepared to be taught by others. The right to teach, in Africa, is earned from the ability to be taught and to learn from others.


  1. 5.      Ukubonakala – To be seen/visible


Exercising the ability to learn from others and to do “what works” makes leadership effective, visible and positively felt. When leadership is distant, not felt and not present people become disengaged, get de-motivated and look for alternative leadership solutions outside elsewhere. Leadership must master the art of communicating timely and truthfully to be positively felt. Communication is also about the ability to listen and to be listened to.


When Africa occupies centre stage during the world cup its leadership will be seen in her ability to listen and to be listened to by her peers. The same apply to governments, business leaders, social leaders and politicians. To earn the leadership visibility, first develop the ability to see (i.e. have a clear vision), the humility to be shown (i.e. be pragmatic and learn from others), have the ability to show each other (i.e. while you seek to be understood, seek first to understand others and share lessons).


  1. 6.      Ukubonisa – To show


The right to teach others is earned from being teachable yourself. Out of experience and doing what works come the profound lessons which leadership should freely give to others without being arrogant least they are perceived as dogma. South Africa showed the world, without any arrogance, how to organize the best world cup ever. That could only happen because South Africa was willing to learn from other nations – previous World Cup hosts, and improved on their lessons.


Productivity or socio-economic improvement cannot happen in a vacuum. Some critical observations must first be made, shared, tested and lessons learned from them and from others in order to make improvement choices. When these improvement actions work best, share them to help others improve and start doing what works. This is informed by the abundance mentality of leadership. Scarcity mentality dictates that discoveries about what works must be kept a secret to give one competitive edge.


Ubuntu teaches leadership the essence of unselfish sharing. The world learned from the 2010 FIFA world cup experience that Africa has more to offer than the big five (i.e. wild animals). It is time for Africa to show the world without holding back. Similarly, leaders in business, government and society who do not mentor others have a scarcity mentality. We need leaders with an abundance mentality who will mentor others to be greater than themselves. This is the true spirit of ukubonisa – to show others the way.


  1. 7.      Ukubonisisa – To see better/clearly


It is in offering mentorship, learning even from those being mentored and pursuing continuous improvement that leadership becomes better. A great leader is a good learner because they keep themselves open to new discoveries, fresh ideas and better ways of doing things. Now is the time for our African leaders to open themselves to peer reviews which is more of the “sharpening of the sword”. African Renaissance will only happen when the collective mindset of Africa leaders embrace all the above. Dictators, poverty, suffering, famine, wars will be a thing of the past when our leaders begin to see better.


Business leaders will begin to see better when they do what works and start driving social change. Africa will have “soulful businesses” which actively drive a social and economic justice agenda. Business and society will thrive while profits soar, poverty will be eliminated and truly the people shall enjoy a better life for all. The environment will be cared for better in good stewardship by all for the generations that follow.

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