The Power of Connection:
The Nguni Bantu term “ubuntu” is often translated as “I am because we are.” Ubuntu is a philosophy that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.
Recently, the Business Roundtable declared that they are changing their businesses’ focus from the old Milton Friedman view to one that states all stakeholders are essential, not just profits and shareholders. What I appreciate about this term is that it expresses humility while also encouraging systems thinking.
The systems thinking part is about recognizing the complicated interdependence of all plants, animals, and humans on this planet. As a company, we must acknowledge our impact on the environment, both positive and negative. We also have a responsibility to our employees, customers, and vendors. The Business Roundtable states its priorities: Customers, Employees, Vendors, Community, and shareholders. I put Employees first, but that’s a minor quibble in the larger scheme of things. The Roundtable has introduced ubuntu to the world of corporate governance.
Our country, more than any other country, celebrates individualism. That has become abundantly clear during this pandemic. A significant number of our citizens choose not to inconvenience themselves by wearing a mask to protect others (and now we know themselves as well). The numbers speak for themselves. As I write, the U.S. is in the middle of a third peak, with many communities having to quarantine themselves once again. We could use a little bit of ubuntu.
The culture of independence sometimes permeates business leaders as well. When I discuss with a company founder how they got to where they are, they frequently tell the story as if it was all their effort. If I gently press the conversation, they will recognize that they had a lot of help and support along their journey. However, it is not top of mind.
The leaders who first recognize others’ help and then recognize their hard work build companies with a strong ubuntu culture.
I love the concept that “I am because WE are.” That concept has significant implications for building high functioning teams. When all team members embrace ubuntu, they are bound to treat others with respect and put the whole group, the project, and the company first before their interest. A leader who embraces ubuntu will lead with high emotional intelligence, put people before profits, and still understand the need to return value to the shareholders. A refreshing result is that the company will naturally evolve to long-term rather than short-term planning horizons.
When we put people first, products, services, and profits will follow. We will build a culture that is inclusive, safe, and transparent. Strangely enough, that culture will also inspire individual leadership regardless of where that individual is in the organizational hierarchy.