Businesses operating in Africa can shape their current workspaces with ubuntu, the age-old African philosophy.
Wide-ranging interactions with managers, at various levels, in the private and public sectors have led to the exploration of elements which have contributed to the successes and failures of a spectrum of organisations. Among the areas in which research was conducted, the use of ubuntu leadership in enhancing workplace performance was identified as a key focus area. This was an attempt to see what leaders can learn from the oldest African philosophy that has been practised in various African countries.
However, while conducting research in some organisations, leadership and management issues were discovered to be quite universal and definitely not unique to one organisation over another. Therefore, it’s imperative to look at how workplaces can be improved by using the wisdom and old values of African forebears.
For the purpose of understanding the role of organisational leaders in any form of transformation, there is a need to visualise a default African village, where a community is guided by seemingly basic human principles that have deep implications for that particular village’s survival.
While we may often speak of ubuntu, we do not always understand what it entails. Leaders and managers can however use the wisdom from this age-old African philosophy, sometimes loosely referred to as African humanism.
Communities or villages (represented by organisations) will not thrive unless the king, queen or chief at the helm has a vision for the people. We are at a time when organisations need wise leaders and managers, or their organisations will falter. Frequently, we constantly enforce only the rational approaches to management.
Peters and Waterman, who have written extensively on management, state that professionalism in management is regularly equated with ‘hard headed rationality’. However, these authors argue that although the rationalist approaches teach people that well-trained, professional managers can manage anything, these approaches miss some arguments. Yet, another author, Bottery, writes about the need to have moral leaders to guide institutions if people are to have a moral society.
The importance of aspects such as culture and norms has been underscored by numerous leaders in South Africa and in other parts of the world. Other leaders have perceived subjective qualities like spirituality as important factors in guiding effective organisations. Successful leaders state that getting culture right and paying attention to how other stakeholders define and experience meaning are two widely accepted rules for creating effective organisations.
Sergiovanni contends: Culture is generally thought of as the normative glue that holds a particular organisation together. With shared visions, values and beliefs at its heart, culture serves as a compass setting, steering people in a common direction. It provides norms that govern the way people interact with each other. It provides a framework for deciding what does or does not make sense.
The above shows how crucial culture is within an organisation and that the leader’s role is important in refining this culture. Some research has shown the importance of certain African models in guiding not only successful but also highly moral organisations.
Many authors have highlighted the need for an ubuntu approach in leadership. Mthembu describes ubuntu as the key to all African values, saying that it involves humanness, a good disposition towards others, and a moral nature. Furthermore, Mthembu says that ubuntu describes the significance of group solidarity and interdependence in African culture.
Lovemore Mbigi who is an expert in this area, supports this by pointing out that ubuntu is a metaphor that describes the significance of group solidarity on issues that are vital to the survival of African communities. The constant calls for a moral society are desperate calls for society to embrace this solidarity as it changes for the better.
Mbigi points out that fears and uncertainties are characteristic of transition and it is the task of leadership to manage the fears of the people. Ubuntu is envisaged as a philosophy that would ensure that there is more diligence and a culture of achievement.
A South African Department of Education Publication points out that equality might require us to put up with people who are different, non-sexism and non-racism might require us to rectify the inequities of the past, but ubuntu goes much further. It embodies the concept of mutual understanding and the active appreciation of the value of human difference – Ultimately; ubuntu requires you to respect others if you are to respect yourself.
In a society that has been made complex by a number of social issues, the philosophy of ubuntu encounters many social currents that flow in various directions. Some of these create obstacles that may oppose the spread of ubuntu.
The cultural activist Pitika Ntuli states that the spirit of ubuntu has long disappeared and that is why we need an African renaissance. Furthermore, Ntuli argues that in the face of the present cultural and moral collapse in South Africa, there is a need to strive for a rebirth. Yet, Mvume Dandala states that ubuntu requires a great deal of learning and sharing, and institutions can achieve this through the training of people to practise greater interaction. Organisations and the communities around them need to learn the values of ubuntu.
Consider these five Ps of ubuntu:
• Permeable walls;
• Progeny; and
These can improve workplaces because they contain the elements that enable communities/villages to be improved. The objective is to illustrate how workplaces can be enhanced, thus making them successful. This is also useful for underperforming organisations.
Effective managers and leaders can change even ingrained cultures when they arrive at organisations where employees have internalised beliefs detrimental to organisational development. It may take long, depending on the qualities of an organisation. But matured, professional and effective leaders can change organisations for the better. Ubuntu-driven approaches can make a big difference.
In March-April 2015, South Africa saw xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in KwaZulu-Natal and in some parts of Gauteng. Many argued that ubuntu is dead in South Africa. Indeed this created a huge concern in South Africa and the neighbouring African states. Yet, the fact that this did not spread to all provinces may be an indication that there is a glimmer of hope that ubuntu is still alive. Moreover, civil society, religious organisations, government departments and businesses came out voicing their condemnation of the xenophobic attacks. The age-old principles of this philosophy will sustain better working communities and a strong nation.
Prof. Vuyisile Msila is Head of the Institute for African Renaissance Studies at Unisa, www.unisa.ac.za. His research focus is general leadership and management, including the development of principals. He the author of Ubuntu: Shaping the current workplace with (African) wisdom, and has also conducted research in African leadership models with a keen interest in the Africanisation of curricula.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.