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Ubuntu: Becoming More Human Together

by Lynette Silva

Recognize This! – Our humanity is strengthened through the support and care of fellow humans.

This weekend, I took my mother to the airport at 3:30 in the morning. While a ridiculous hour to be on the road, I’m grateful. On the way home, the TED Radio Hour was on NPR. Just as dawn was starting to break, I got to listen to Boyd Varty share the South African concept of Ubuntu.

Who’s Boyd Varty and what’s Ubuntu? Good questions.

Boyd Varty is a South African who grew up on the Londolozi Game Reserve where his role was to “take people into nature.” Londolozi may be familiar to some as the place where Nelson Mandela went when he was released from prison to recover his strength and prepare to unite South Africa. Boyd talked about how his observations of Mandela informed his understanding from a young age of the old idea of Ubuntu. Watch Boyd explain in his TED talk:

Did you catch that? Just in case, here’s the definition of Ubuntu:

Ubuntu: I am because of you. Or, people are not people without other people. It's not a new idea or value but it's one that I certainly think at these times is worth building on. In fact, it is said that in the collective consciousness of Africa, we get to experience the deepest parts of our own humanity through our interactions with others.”

How powerful. How human. We become more ourselves when we help others become more, too. Later in the talk, Boyd expounds:

“In a more collective society, we realize from the inside that our own well-being is deeply tied to the well-being of others. Danger is shared. Pain is shared. Joy is shared. Achievement is shared.”

I suggest this is also the definition of what it means to WorkHuman. Instead of the more cutthroat business approach of “for me to succeed, you must fail,” we think in terms of “we can all achieve greater success by focusing on the success of others around us.” If we fail, we fail (and learn) together. If we succeed, we succeed together.

This TED blog shared the perspectives on Ubuntu from global luminaries (Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton) and even technology and sports. I like how Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defines Ubuntu: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

That’s the definition of any successful workplace – we are what we are because of what we do together. And the better we become about sharing risk, challenges, workloads, achievements, successes – about celebrating, recognizing and praising the exceptional effort of our peers and colleagues – the stronger we all become. The more successful the business becomes.

The more human work becomes. How can you apply the principle of Ubuntu at your work?  


About the Author

Lynette Silva is a principal consultant on Workhuman’s Strategy & Consulting team, partnering with clients on change strategies to make work more human.

Profile Photo of Lynette Silva Heelan