What Is Ubuntu? I Am Because We Are


Do you believe in signs? I do! I feel like I was nudged to write this article. You know, like when you buy a car and then you see that exact car – make, model, color – everywhere? That’s what happened to me with “ubuntu.” I kept seeing the word. And it’s not a common word. What is ubuntu?

First, I saw a “recommended for you” post on Facebook. It was a definition of ubuntu which caused me to pause and then repost it. Ubuntu simply means “I am because we are.” We are connected and rely on each other – which includes human to human as well as to our communities and environments. We do not live in isolation.

Next, I was watching the news and there was Ron Rivera, head coach of the NFL Washington Commanders, wearing a shirt with the word ‘ubuntu’ front and center. I learned that his coaching philosophy revolves around interdependence, synergy and mutual trust. Although he does not discount individual effort, he focuses on words like culture, teamwork, and trust. He believes that the character of the man is more fundamental to great success than his skill on the field. I can get behind that!

The last sign was a personal experience. I went to bed one night with a mild headache only to wake up a few hours later very ill. Imagine my surprise when my doctor told me to go to the ER. From there it was two nights in the ICU. Upon reflecting on the nurses who gave constant care and encouragement, to my personal doctor who texted me often to keep on eye on the situation and clarify information, to my family who ignored my “I don’t need help” messages by coming to the hospital, taking care of my dog, and buying me groceries, to my friends (the ones I broke down and told) checking on me and sending prayers, to my clients who extended grace for my requests to reschedule – I realize now that I experienced the spirit of ubuntu.

What does ubuntu look like?

A great example comes from an article I read about an anthropologist visiting a Zulu tribe in Africa. He bought a lot of sweets on a trip into the city. Then he put all the sweets into a basket, attached a beautiful ribbon, and placed the basket under a solitary tree. Then, he called the kids of the tribe together. He drew a line in the dirt and said the kids should wait behind the line for his signal. When he said “Go!” they should hurry over to the basket. The first to arrive would win all the sweet treats. When he said “Go!” something unexpected happened – they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply and happily shared the treats with each other. The anthropologist was pretty surprised and asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to reach the tree could have kept everything in the basket. One young girl simply said, “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?” What is ubuntu? This is ubuntu.

Another example I heard was from a gentleman who talked about a day where he was terribly busy and distracted. He took a break to get something to eat. When it was his turn to order, he proclaimed, “chicken pie” without looking up. There was no response. So, he repeated his order. To which the order taker, responded “welcome.” He finally made eye contact and realized she only wanted to be acknowledged. Recognition of others is fundamental to ubuntu. We all deserve the basic right to be seen and heard.

Recently I was talking to a fellow entrepreneur. We were telling stories, encouraging each other, and sharing what works for us and what doesn’t when we stopped and admitted that our conversation was not always the norm. Competition is pervasive in our culture, and we have both experienced poor behavior from others who felt that our gain would be their loss. We want to show up in the world the ubuntu way. What is ubuntu? Seeing plenty, instead of scarcity and including rather than excluding.

Ubuntu also addresses our environment. I recently mentioned to my niece, who is a third-grade teacher, that I had noticed there weren’t as many bees enjoying my patio flowers this year. She mentioned that she had just discussed this with her class. According to a report, the American honeybee has “declined by 89% in relative abundance and continues to decline toward extinction.” This is due to many factors, including habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and disease. In the past 20 years, it has completely disappeared from eight states and has become exceedingly rare in many others. Did you now that 30% of food crops need cross-pollination from bees? Nature and ecosystems are at risk. What does this have to do with ubuntu? Ubuntu would look like making the choice to grow pollinator-friendly plants like basil, rosemary, or sunflowers, avoiding using pesticides, and supporting local beekeepers by purchasing organic honey products. Everyone does their part.

Do you have ubuntu?

According to this article from Medium.com, the answer is yes only if it is embraced and applied on an individual level. Like love, no one can force you to love someone else, but you can do it of your own volition. Ubuntu is a way of living, by understanding and accepting that you, as an individual, reflect your community. And by improving yourself you are also improving your community. It may not be apparent, but it will reflect back to you in a long term.

How can you integrate ubuntu in your lifestyle?

Mother Teresa once said, “compassion is useless without action or application.” Ubuntu is about the idea of acting.

  • Set an intention – embrace the idea of ubuntu. When you wake up in the morning, take a minute to determine how you want to show up in the world. Act accordingly.
  • Expand your perspective – ask yourself: how might others see this problem? What impact might my solution have on others?
  • See both sides – when someone has wronged you or is rude to you, instead of reacting, take a breath and consider what else might be going on. Trying to understand someone does not mean you condone their behavior.
  • Raise your compassion, kindness, and empathy quotient – this includes to yourself.

Ubuntu Leadership

I collaborate with leaders every day. The leaders I see that are most successful are the ones who put aside their ego and make the mindset shift that we are better together than as individuals. They bring out the best in others. How do you know if you are an ubuntu leader?

  • Are you a multiplier or a diminisher? In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman describes a multiplier as a leader who amplifies the results of the people around them. They bring out others’ capability and intelligence. They energize those around them instead of sucking the air out of the room.
  • Do you model and encourage a growth mindset?
  • Do you contribute to the bigger picture by sharing information and resources, encouraging collaboration, and connecting people?
  • Do you understand that belonging and inclusion are part of the obligation of leadership?

Can one person really make a difference?

To answer that question, I will leave with this excerpt from the book Fractured by Catherine McKenzie:

“They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian rain forest, it can change the weather half a world away” Chaos theory. What it means is that everything that happens in this moment is an accumulation of everything that’s come before it. Every breath. Every thought. There is no innocent action. Some actions end up having the force of a tempest. Their impact cannot be missed. Others are the blink of an eye. Passing by unnoticed. Perhaps only God knows which is which. All I know today is that you can think that what you’ve done is only the flap of a butterfly wing, when it’s really a thunderclap. And both can result in a hurricane.”

Debby Neely
Debby Neely

Debby Neely is a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation who specializes in leadership coaching and facilitation. Her business, Neely Coaching & Training, supports both formal and informal leaders in realizing their potential and in getting results. Their mission is to help you be the best you can be.

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