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Ubuntu, isivivane and uhluhlasa: the meaning of leadership and management in South Africa

Ubuntu, isivivane and uhluhlasa: the meaning of leadership and management in South Africa

By Linda van der Colff, head of postgraduate studies at Milpark Business School who can be contacted at



This paper aims to explore the way in which traditional African management values (Ubuntu) should be integrated into the organisation in such a way as to provide opportunity for leadership to dismantle the past organisational culture, promote the development of a new, more inclusive culture, and in the final instance, create a set of leadership skills and competencies that enable globalisation processes.

It provides clarification and an explanation for the way in which "Western" notions of leadership are found within "African management", and how the two styles can interact to bring effectiveness and efficiency to the organisation. The paper’s aim is also to show the significance of these values in traditional Western concepts of leadership, including how ubuntu can be used in the "real world" of management. Ubuntu can also be used in management thinking and practice as espousing the important values of leadership legitimacy, communal enterprise and value sharing.

1. Introduction

While organisations, in general, readily accept and even embrace technological advancement, there seems to be less of a tendency to be innovative and accepting when it comes to changing the paradigm in people management. Especially in South Africa, where leaders are being entrusted with leading their operations into the 21st century, into an era where the issue of diversity and the problems of an alienating corporate culture, the lack of global competitiveness and discriminatory employment practices is still impacting on corporate productivity. In this era, the competitive advantage of firms is increasingly dependent on how the workforce is being managed.

According to writers such as Plani1, it is understandable that it is easier for leaders to deal with more tangible realities that have a direct causal relationship to the balance sheet. It has become imperative for all involved to effectively deal with indirect influences on bottom line that is reflecting in the dynamics of managing people.

According to Hendrikz2 "the South African environment could be considered to represent a more challenging and demanding role for managers than anywhere else in the world". The pace of change within the economy as a whole is asking of managers and leaders alike to become more flexible and progressive in their management style, including developing entrepreneurial and innovation skills.

Especially in the South African environment, it is important for leaders to realise the incredible potential in valuing the diverse perspective and talent of each person. The leader of the future has to learn to assist people of divergent values, beliefs and backgrounds and to weave all employees’ efforts into ultimately benefiting each individual and the organisation as a whole. Hence, what managers must be able to do in future will have a direct impact on managers and leaders alike.3

There is an old tradition where every traveller who passes a certain spot would add a stone to a pile of stones. In doing this, every traveller become part of the common purpose and identifies with a certain good cause. This ritual is named isivivane. In today’s fast changing environment, it is our economy that needs everyone’s efforts. Isivivane can therefore be seen as a metaphor for the partnership in creating a future South Africa4. The main trend in all new theories about the incorporation of African values in a new management style is to recognise that these values should not be seen as a source of conflict, but as a source that could be utilised to help build a sound economic base for everyone in the country.


Table 1: The African tree concept.

Click to see larger (full scale) image

2. African tree concept

According this concept developed by Delani Mthembu5 (in Lessem and Nussbaum), the main stem that underpins all the most important values of African history can be traced through Ubuntu. Ubuntu can be seen as the key to all African values and involves collective personhood and collective morality. Therefore, values around harmony are deeply embedded in African communities. The branches to the tree are formed by leadership legitimacy, communal enterprise and value-sharing. The premise of the argument therefore follows that these values should not only be seen as african values, but human values important in establishing both an enabling organisational culture and a set of skills and competencies valued in all the organisation’s leaders. The concept of the African tree is used to explain African management, empowerment and transformation.

A further aspect that is imperative to assess is whether Ubuntu is not a concept that flows out of the values of leadership legitimacy, communal enterprise and value sharing. In this way, an inversion of the african tree would ensure that ubuntu flows out of these values. The values therefore become the roots out of which a collective personhood and collective morality can flow.



Adele Thomas Beyond affirmative action: Managing diversity for competitive advantage in South Africa, Knowledge Resources 1996


Peter Bezuidenhoudt The role of MBA programmes within management education, Unpublished MBA dissertation, Wits Business School 1997


Linda Van der Colff, "Management education for the new millennium", Management Today (July 2001) pp28-29


R. Lessem & B Nussbaum Sawubona Africa: Embracing four worlds in South African management, Zebra Press 1996

3. Leadership legitimacy

Traditionally, African leadership is built on participation, responsibility and spiritual authority. According to Lessem6 African leadership requires the elements of transparency, accountability and legitimacy. It therefore becomes imperative for the enterprising business community in South Africa to stop imposing a foreign organisational culture on people and to create an inclusive culture, enabling everyone to be nurtured in a cohesive, yet diverse unit.

One of the most important leadership values in a Western leadership paradigm is that leaders should model the way for employees by personal value commitment. The only way in which leaders can be legitimate is to be role models for their followers through their actions, showing personal commitment to the values and goals established in the organisation. Successful leaders, therefore, have the ability or capacity to relate a compelling image of the organisation’s vision through enthusiasm and personal buy-in. Leaders should be trustworthy themselves before expecting the same from employees.

Furthermore, leaders should model the way for their employees by their own personal value commitment, both taking their personal convictions and personal skills into consideration. Not only is it imperative for leaders to be productive in their own right, but the leader must create an environment for all employees that is enabling. The role of the leader in modelling the way includes the ability to foster a productive work environment. This is done through the leader’s personal convictions and personal skills.

Therefore, it is important for leaders to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of the employees in such a way that employees become more empowered. The leader should be helpful, fair and considerate and support employees in their legitimate requests and convey appreciation. Leaders must see their employees as resources that must be valued and developed to build their opportunities and in this way build their own legitimacy.

Another management value that is valued in the Western notion of leadership is that leaders should challenge the process through individual development. For any organisation to be able to manage change proactively, it needs to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. The factors that can be used as a guideline to develop leaders that creates an enabling innovative culture is as follows. Leaders must seek individual challenges and must be thirsty for self-knowledge. Any company needs leaders that ask the question: what can we learn? The only way in which the company can develop an innovative culture is to rethink old ways of doing things and look for new ways to innovate. Issues important for leaders within challenging the process through individual development are entrepreneurship, innovation and personal self development.

The only way in which leaders can be seen as legitimate is to help build the organisation’s vision. The vision should be identified, communicated and translated in such a way as having grown out of the needs of the entire organisation.



Delani Mthembu "African values: discovering the indigenous roots of management" in: R. Lessem & B. Nussbaum Sawubona Africa: Embracing four worlds in South African management, Zebra Press 1996


R. Lessem & B Nussbaum Sawubona Africa: Embracing four worlds in South African management, Zebra Press 1996

Lategan7 reminds the reader of the importance of vision in the words of Charles Handy: "the vision of any organisation remains a dream if not shared by followers".


Vision is seen as one of the most important factors that increase the ability of leaders to lead employees. Not only should leaders incorporate the set vision of the organisation into the organisation’s culture, but it should also be reinforced by participative decision-making. In this way, the vision will grow out of the needs of the entire organisation. Only when the vision is truly inclusive will leaders achieve the commitment of all employees to organisational achievement. Employees will only commit to the organisational vision if it is clear to see that leaders stand for the values that lie behind the vision.

Vision by itself is not enough. Two processes must effectively articulate it. Firstly, the leader must articulate the context of the vision and secondly, the leader must communicate his/her motivation to lead. The vision is articulated in such a way as to create a strong identification with future goals, and a compelling desire to be led in the direction of the goal despite possible hurdles. The leader should be able to create disenchantment with the status quo, and a strong willingness to lead employees to the proposed future vision.

Secondly, and most importantly, in articulating their motivation to lead, the leader demonstrates their own convictions and dedication to help materialise the vision they are advocating.

It is recommended that leaders strive to develop the following 5 competencies in defining the organisation’s vision:

The leader must enlist a common vision appropriate to all employees

The leader must incorporate a vision of the future for the organisation, thereby setting organisational goals and objectives

The leader must be a visionary that is able to see the bigger picture and must personally stand for the values that is created

The leader must encourage others to make a commitment to organisational values

Lastly, the leader must develop values that will recognise diversity as a strategic asset.

By defining vision, leaders are involved in what is created as a picture of the future orientation of what the organisation wants to become. This also implies that the organisation makes a choice on their dominant values and value systems. An interesting example of how the leader’s vision of the organisation is translated to all employees through communal values can be found in the story of Madiba’s Clothing Factory (Appendix 1).

4. Communal enterprise

To enhance South Africa’s global competitive economic advantage, it is imperative that there is an acknowledgement and utilisation of the African value system alongside western and eastern practices. A practical way in which managers could implement this is through making use of work teams. The organisation must provide a style of leadership that would help the individual to see the connection between individual direction and organisational direction.

Teams and autonomous workgroups can be used in the organisation to ensure collectivism and solidarity. This form of work method can be used on crucial business issues such as training, decision making, production related issues as well as reward systems.

Within the organisation, people from very diverse backgrounds are brought together to effectively manage and develop organisational solutions. The leader must be able to synergise individual effort to achieve organisational goals by balancing individual and group

needs in order for a positive climate to prevail within the workforce that is motivated and productive. The leader must also be able to bring together the different knowledge, skills

and abilities of people in continued team effort.


B. Lategan "Diversity threat or asset?" Management today July pp8-13


In this way teams will develop a sense of mutual accountability and common goals. The only way for this to happen is if leaders set clear responsibilities for each team member.

Although members of a group may have certain goals in common, each individual is also unique. In managing diverse situations, leaders must be able to manage and understand both the commonalities and differences of group members and how these cause people to relate to each other in various ways.

It is clear to see that the leader must play a role in teams on both an individual and collective basis. The only way in which it can be expected of groups to achieve their common objectives is through the leader ensuring a resource rich environment. Not only is it the duty of the leader to give support to his/her team, but the leader should also passionately tell others about the team’s work. In this way, the final outcome will be enhanced.

Therefore, the only way in which organisations can renew themselves is when it is made possible for employees to work in cohesive and productive teams to aspire to a common set of objectives and organisational vision. An excellent example of the role of leaders in ensuring the development of productive teams can be seen in the story of Velaphi Ratshefola’s use of "Nurturing the cows that never die" at Nampak (See Appendix 1).

5. Value sharing

The values of interconnectedness, continuous integrated development, respect and dignity and collectivism and solidarity is seen as value sharing.

A. Continuous integrated development

According to Mthembu 8, if organisations can be seen as communities and not just as structures of power, it would be possible for organisations to provide the fertile ground necessary for individual empowerment. Organisations should therefore make use of continuous integrated development. In the end, it is imperative that the organisation ensures a development process implemented for all staff whereby all competencies could be developed. To this end, developing employees will ensure the ability of all staff to integrate the skills necessary to become future leaders. All employees should be seen as important resources that must be developed through training and skills building opportunities to ensure the full utilisation of the company’s most important resource, namely people.

The only way in which leaders will be able to maximise commitment to organisational goals and strategy is through people development and empowerment. In this way, empowered employees can be mobilised towards the organisation’s vision. Empowering employees will give people the freedom to innovate and experiment with taking calculated risks.

It is important for leaders in certain circumstances to be coaching, as it would help their employees to identify their strengths and weaknesses and tie these to personal career development. Through empowerment, leaders will be able to delegate to employees who will take on autonomy and responsibility of their own world experience.

Leaders should acquire the ability to be able to manage diversity successfully in training and development. Firstly, it is important that leaders believe that staff development will lead to new market and customer development. In other words, by managing internal diversity, organisations will be gaining a competitive advantage over competitors that is unable to manage diversity. For the organisation to become focused on creating change, staff must be developed in such a way as to enhance their creativity and problem solving skills. Training and development processes aimed at empowerment will invariably lead to greater productivity as a result of increased employee job satisfaction. Empowerment will also positively impact on staff’s skill and confidence as well as tapping into a range of skills which the organisation has not utilised before.

It is recommended that leaders develop the following skills with regards to people empowerment and development:

Leaders should understand that employees will rise to the occasion when extra effort is needed

Employees must be involved in decisions that have a direct impact on them

Employees must be given the opportunity and freedom to innovate

It is the leader’s responsibility to build a climate of trust in the workplace.

B. Respect and dignity

The only way to receive dignity is to give it first. According to Posner and Kouzes9 (quoted in Torazi, 1990), the legitimacy of all leaders within an organisation will be dependent on whether leaders are able to encourage the heart by recognising employees’ contributions as well as celebrating team accomplishments. Respect and dignity can only be created by leaders personal value commitment to the development of all employees.

One of leaders’ main responsibilities is to create an environment and organisational culture that enables the organisation to deal with the issue of diversity. It is important that the organisation develops an inclusive culture that is representative of all employees’ values. Each employee must be valued as having his/her own strengths and weaknesses. Leaders must shape an organisation’s culture by inculcating specific values and beliefs.

The only way in which the organisation can espouse the values of entrepreneurship and innovation is if these values are resident in the organisation’s culture. It is therefore recommended that leaders ensure the encouragement of these values through their own actions. Part of developing an empowered, inclusive organisational culture is the function of leaders to understand that employees can only be empowered through an acute awareness of the organisation’s vision and direction.

It is recommended that leaders ensure that corporate objectives are translated down to functional objectives. In this way, the management of organisational culture should be seen by all leaders as essential in achieving corporate objectives. The only way in which employees can become empowered, is through the creation of an inclusive organisational culture that communicates the organisation’s vision and direction in appropriate language, content and terms.

A good example of the development of an inclusive culture is the use of industrial theatre in "greeting people, greeting companies, sanibonani" at Brollo Africa (See Appendix 1).

C. Interconnectedness

One of the most important characteristics in African culture is the belief that all things and people are interconnected and bound together. In the business environment, it is important to accept the relevance of group solidarity and interconnectedness. By building a sense of interconnectedness by the sharing of the company’s values, vision and overall goals, a sense of interconnectedness will flow from this.

Part of interconnectedness can be seen in two western leadership values, namely participative decision-making and empowerment.



Delani Mthembu "African values: discovering the indigenous roots of management" in: R. Lessem & B. Nussbaum Sawubona Africa: Embracing four worlds in South African management, Zebra Press 1996




All companies should take heed of the following advice. The more operational information is shared with employees through participative decision-making, the greater the ability of staff to make decisions that are in the best interest of both individuals and the organisation.

Companies should invest in a participative decision making style to ensure greater commitment from all employees. In this way, greater knowledge is brought to bear as diverse employees bring with them a set of untapped skills. As development and empowerment of employees is such an important issue within all modern day organisations, participative decision making can also be utilised to enhance the skills and abilities of all employees. When all employees are involved, a greater range of values is represented, thereby ensuring better and more innovative decisions.

In the role of empowerment and enabling others to act, the leader plays two roles. The first role of the leader is empowering employees through participation in all processes. The second role played by the leader is the personal role of the leader in enabling others to act.

Enabling others to act through participation:

Part of enabling employees and colleagues to act is that leaders must value differences in such a way that the management of diversity is seen as an organisational imperative that is a necessity in creating competitive advantage for the firm. In the end, leaders are only as powerful as the ideas that they can communicate. Therefore, it is imperative for leaders to translate the organisation’s vision of the future into employees’ action. In this way, the workforce will be enabled. To further empower employees, leaders must develop co-operative relationships with all staff and always democratically involve others in planning. If employees feel that they own the projects they work on, they will feel empowered.

Enabling others to act through the leaders personal role:

To be enabling as a leader, s/he must ensure respect for all differences and create opportunities for all involved. Part of this is the imperative to allow others to make decisions. To value differences also includes creating an atmosphere of trust which would enable the development of co-operative relationships that could lead to the fulfilment of collaborative goals. The leader must give personal attention to developing overall direction for staff, create a strong identification with future goals and have the capacity to relate a compelling image of the future vision.

The only way in which leaders can enable others to act is through communication. Issues with regards to the mastery of communication need to be addressed carefully since leaders convey and shape meaning through communication. In the case of diverse organisational situations, the rules of intercultural communication come into play as well. In these situations, the creation of meaning would have certain cultural variables that play an important role in the way in which leaders shape and convey meaning.

6. Conclusion

To conclude, certain, if not all of the defined african values of management and leadership are general leadership values that should be espoused in all excellent leaders. All parties should draw on some African values and contextualise them within the corporate world to create not only a value-centred and inclusive culture, but to develop a network of skills and competencies appropriate for leadership in the next millennium (See appendix 2). An analysis of the values of leadership legitimacy, communal enterprise and value sharing shows that these values can become the roots out of which collective personhood and collective morality (Ubuntu) can flow (See table 1).



James Kouzes and Barry Posner The leadership challenge California, Jossey-Bass management Series 1987


Appendix 1

A. Leadership legitimacy: Madiba’s clothing

Madiba’s clothing has developed praise singing (an African tradition) focused on the company’s values. Board members, as part of the company’s induction process, tell their stories of how they came to join the company. In this way, business embraces humanity and values each person who has played a role in the organisation’s success by translating each leader’s vision to all employees through communal values.

B. Communal enterprise: "Nurturing the cows that never die" at Nampak

Nampak has made use of the significance of owning cows in traditional culture to develop productive teams. In African culture, it is a shame to allow a cow to die, because of the accompanying personal dignity, spiritual responsibility and symbolic significance. Nampak was encouraged to engage the commitment of their employees in valuing themselves, the company, and the machinery they work with.

C. Value sharing: The use of industrial theatre "greeting people, greeting companies, sanibonani" at Brollo Africa

The greeting Sanibonani in Zulu literally means "we see you". Therefore, when meeting someone, Zulus start by affirming that person’s humanity. Brollo Africa made use of industrial theatre in the development of an inclusive culture. In this way, employees could reflect collectively in an effort to identify new company values. Stories of the company were told through plays which was more impactful on employees as they were actively involved.


Appendix 2


African Ubuntu value



Western leadership principles



Overarching values



Leadership legitimacy


Modelling the way by personal value commitment





Challenging the process through individual development








Modelling the way by personal convictions such as:

  • the leader’s personal commitment to the values of the organisation
    • getting others to see, believe and understand the vision
      • be motivated, empowered and committed as a leader

      Modelling the way by personal skills such as


      • able to set milestones and clear goals
        • able to break projects into achievable chunks
          • assuring that organisational values are adhered to

          Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Personal self-development, Employee development and innovation

          Describes a future to be created and sets expectations

          Shares dreams

          Forecasts the future and enlist a common vision

          Connect aspirations of others, find common goals

          Be a visionary and is able to see the bigger picture

          Encourages others to make a commitment to organisational achievement


Communal enterprise


Teamwork and team development


Celebrate milestones with employees

Recognition of others’ achievements and giving praise for a job well done

Staff must work well as a team and must have the necessary resources to achieve goals


Value sharing: Interconnected-



Participative decision-making

Empower and enable others to act


Greater knowledge and expertise brought to bear, employees generate wider range of values and perspectives, potential obstacles identified and solved, involving employees enhances skills.

Enables others to act through participation and through the leader’s personal role


Value sharing: Continuous integrated development


People development and empowerment



Leaders must value individual differences

Leaders must give personal attention to all employees and build relationships


Value sharing: Respect and dignity


Development of respect and dignity through organisational culture


High performance organisations includes following values:

Leaders spend time communicating the vision and directing employees to achieving goals

Corporate objectives translated down to functional and employee objectives

Employees are empowered through an acute awareness of the organisation’s vision and direction

Innovation and entrepreneurship is valued and encouraged

Organisation’s infrastructure is utilised to ensure a high level of cross functional communication

Value sharing: Collectivism and solidarity


Change and innovation

Managing diversity


Encourage staff to use their imagination and to rethink their old ways of doing things

Encourage possibility thinking by building an attitude of challenge, encouraging people to see change as full of possibilities



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