Dumi Magadlela
Dumi Magadlela

Ubuntu offers our own unique brand of leadership

In the current atmosphere of heightened demand for service delivery and leadership accountability, we desperately need leaders with serious ubuntu credentials to lead us out of service delivery protests and regular strikes. This can only be effectively done by visible delivery on promises made and meeting expectations. But many of us cannot tell the difference between pedestrian run-of-the-mill leadership and credible inspired leadership with spine and ubuntu values. Or can we?

The numbers among us of people that do not give a hoot about who is leading us are dwindling, and that has to be a good sign surely. President Zuma’s Cabinet, although large, shows smart thinking and is a great start towards meeting some of the hither-to neglected challenges head-on. Forget the 100 days issue. Let us all deliver in our respective spheres, and then listen closely to the next State of the Nation address when the real accounting must be done.

Ubuntu leadership starts from standing firm on the premise of humane values. It is characterised by delivery and accountability regardless of criticism and fierce opposition. Collective good weighs far more than individual worth. The Arch (Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu) is known for speaking truth to power, and for being fearless. These are great credentials for any leader. He knows he does not speak for himself, but is a mouthpiece for many.

The Arch has always stood firm on the side of the general good. You would expect nothing less from a man of the cloth. But The Arch is more than that (more than a man of the cloth, more than just a politically savvy preacher). He is an embodiment of humaneness, of ubuntu. He lives and leads with passion for collective human (and humane) value.

No, I am not writing his autobiography or something of the sort. Just an acknowledgement of his ubuntu values, his ubuntu-ness and ubuntu leadership credentials. And yes, I am merely adding to the deserved accolades that US President Barack Obama and Americans recently bestowed on this amazing South African affectionately knows as The Arch.

Did you know that humility is one of the main features of ubuntu. Ever heard The Arch brag about his achievements? Or any credible leader for that matter. These leaders are always teaching us something with and through their lives. The Arch teaches, models, and examplifies ubuntu leadership values through his word and deeds. My favourite quote from The Arch, although longish, is the following:

“Africans have a thing called ‘ubuntu’; it is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa is going to give to the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go that extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons; that my humanity is caught up and bound up in yours. When I dehumanise you, I inexorably dehumanise myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms, and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging” (from Reuel Khoza’s book entitled Let Africa Lead).

(Sure, you can go back and read it one more time … its worth it.)

One characteristic of ubuntu leadership is personal (and collective) integrity and resilience. This includes the flexibility and maturity that allows one to change one’s views when there is enough evidence to make the shift, or when the shift in one’s view is in the service of the greater (collective) good. It also means the ability to withstand and survive personal challenges, and remain steadfastly in the service of others, in spite, and regardless, of the personal challenges encountered. Go figure.

If for any other reason, this blog is meant to stimulate debate on leadership accountability. It would be useful also if it helped dispel the notion that ubuntu is this soft fluffy romanticised Afrikan philosohpy and theory that preaches that we must all hug each other and feel good about ourselves for no apparent reason. No. Ubuntu is not about that at all. When describing ubuntu, we always seek to go beyond the common definition of ‘I am because you/we are’. There is much, much more to ubuntu than that. Keep the debate alive. Explore more than your mere resentment of it. See what emerges. Feel it.

Ubuntu does not represent a meaningless glorification of how Afrikan people live(d) and work(ed) harmoniously in collective agreement without holding each other accountable. It is essentially this element of accountability in ubuntu leadership that is misunderstood. There is a good reason why we have the Lekgotla (subject for another blog, on another day) as a vital form of meeting and deliberating on issues of national importance. Leaders hold each other accountable when they are in Lekgotla. In proper Lekgotla (meetings), everyone has their say, and is carefully listened to, and heard.

Reports that Tutu and President Zuma recently smoked a peace pipe are just that, reports. Its good to see. But who said they were fighting? You can rest assured that if any member of the current leadership makes a mistake that requires general public rebuke, The Arch will be among the first to raise his voice about it. Respectifully and rightfully so too … because he is guided by his ubuntu credentials and knows the duty to hold others accountable no matter what the perceived political costs are. Political correctness has its price, and we are already paying too much for everything as it is. Holding others accountable is easier when the moral standing and integrity of the particular leader doing it is well-established, and not questionable.

Ubuntu leadership credentials are characterised by acknowledging our interconnectedness and the systemic nature of the challenges we face as a people (see Tutu’s quote above). Accompanying competences include holding oneself and others accountable for leading responsibly and delivering on promises in the manner in which The Arch is known to do so well.

I believe that great leaders are not born. They are grown and nurtured through mentoring, coaching, and being held up and supported. There is a constantly growing need to expose our local government leaders, especially now, to leadership techniques, practices and behaviours that deliver results and serve the people. Leaders’ attitudes and behaviours are constructions borne out of either regular practice, out of habit, or of not knowing any better. There is often patronage and fear of displeasing others, thereby going against one’s core (humane) values of service to others just to please those in powerful positions higher up, or to stay in office. Ubuntu-inspired leaders’ credentials include holding oneself and others accountable at all times.

The challenge for leaders in our young democracy is to remain committed to growing the skills necessary to serve without fear or coersion, but with loyalty and service to collective good. Yes, as I’ve said before, it is good to dream … and a fertile imagination is capable of yielding positive and great results. Let us take advantage of the current wave of leadership and political accountability to build a new cadre of leaders capable of taking us beyond 2010 and the Millennium Development Goals target of 2015. There are enough examples of how not to do development from around the world.

Ubuntu leadership offers us our own unique brand of leadership. We have nothing to lose by adopting it across the board, and customising it to serve our collective good. Dreams are good. Very good. Some come true. Perchance.