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Ubuntu and cooperative advantage

| July 28, 2020

by David Sweetman

Ubuntu and cooperative advantage

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Dr. David Sweetman, MOR Associates Leadership Coach and Consultant.  David may be reached at [email protected].]
In the face of the increased uncertainties and decreased resources, it is common that we rely on our past experience to help us solve new problems. Today we are intending to challenge that instinct and encourage you to take on new challenges with new approaches. For example, we have heard from some of you that new levels of collaboration may be necessary to meet the challenges in this stretch ahead, such as consortium-based solutions, partnerships, and other ways of working across silos and boundaries.  This is a model embraced by the open-source community.  What can we learn as we consider the ideals of open-source?  A key dimension is the open, collaborative team effort and open licensing for the benefit of the collective.  People work across boundaries for the greater good of the larger community.
Those of us versed in servers and other technical infrastructure likely recognize Ubuntu as the name of one open-source Linux distribution.  Ubuntu’s creators were wise to choose this name, as it is a word that has its origins in the value of community.  Over the past few weeks, our Tuesday Readings have focused on relationships, humility, and valuing others.  We continue on that path discussing the ideas of ubuntu and cooperative advantage.  Today’s reading draws heavily from the excellent work of Leon Prieto and Simone Phipps in their recent book African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage.
What is ubuntu?  The idea of ubuntu comes to us from traditional Southern African philosophy.  Its rough translation is “I am, because we are.”  Ubuntu is defined as humaneness – a pervasive spirit of caring and community, harmony and hospitality, respect and responsiveness – that individuals and groups display for one another.1 It is based on systems of cooperation in ensuring all members of a community are included and belong.  Practicing ubuntu can lead organizations to cooperative advantage.  Cooperative advantages are positive benefits experienced by an organization due to person-focused approaches to deep and meaningful connection, consensus-building, and the facilitation of dialog for the benefit of the employees, customers, and the community.2  We will now briefly explore each of these three topics in turn.
Deep and meaningful connection.  This is about focusing on organization values, creating and articulating meaningfulness in work, with each employee feeling a strong sense of significance and purpose in their work.  For many of us, this meaningfulness is inherent in the purposes of higher education in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.   How do we help those we lead more fully see the connection between their work and these purposeful missions?  Additionally, how do we create an environment that enables each person to thrive by best developing and using their knowledge and skills?  Especially under increased budget and time pressures, how can we provide some meaningful forms of growth and recognition for each of our team members?
Consensus-building.   This is expressed in the word simunye, which translates roughly to the concept of solidarity, “we are one”, as in “unity is strength.”  True consensus-building is a process which can take time and lengthy discussion.  Creating an organizational culture that enables consensus-building begins by ensuring proper representation in decision-making bodies.  Who is impacted by given decisions and is their appropriate representation in those decision-making bodies?  Consensus-building also involves giving voice and autonomy through self-organization wherever possible.  For example, putting in the hands of those employees directly impacted the setting of ground rules, shaping details of how work is completed, defining working groups where needed, or determining meeting agenda topics.  Are there internal team processes that could benefit from a team-led redesign? 
Facilitating dialog.  By providing facilitation, we minimize distance between individuals and maximize engagement.  As we know, relationships are currency, and time should be invested each week in building relationships and rapport with others.  Especially in our current context of social distancing, what can we do to ensure quality dialog occurs within our teams?  How about connections with more distant teams?
Ubuntu, such an inspiring, progressive, and people-focused leadership philosophy.  The mutually-beneficial collaborative efforts of the open-source movement.  How can these two ideas help us think and act differently at this point in time?  They offer a path to working broadly with each other and leveraging investments through deep partnership, cooperation, caring, and community.  This kind of advanced collaboration and cooperative advantage requires a strong degree of trust.  Ubuntu provides foundation for that trust through deep and meaningful connections, building of consensus, and facilitating of dialog.
There were a lot of ideas packed into this short reading.  What are some of the ideas of ubuntu  and cooperative advantage that especially resonate for you?  How can we use the perspective and toolset offered by this philosophy to better confront the challenges facing your organization?  How can you leverage these ideas to expand your thinking on meaningful opportunities for collaboration that extend even more broadly than today, mutually benefiting a larger community?  Perhaps more broadly within your organization?  Perhaps even in partnership with other organizations?   Get up on the balcony, think strategically, and think creatively.
Please make your day a leaderful one for you and your team,


1. Mzamo P. Mangaliso, and Mphuthumi B. Damane. “Building Competitive Advantage from ‘Ubuntu’: Management Lessons from South Africa [and Executive Commentary].” The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005) 15, no. 3 (1/8/2001): 23–34. doi:10.5465/AME.2001.5229453.

2. Prieto, Leon C.., Phipps, Simone T. A.. African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage. United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019.