Ubuntu – I am because we are

“Ubuntu” is a beautiful Zulu word that stands for inter-connectedness. Ubuntu essential means ‘humanity’ but has gone on to have a more widespread meaning emphasizing on spreading kindness to connect people. It is the understanding that we cannot exist in isolation and so Ubuntu is more commonly interpreted as ‘I am because we are’. It means that we are all a sum total not just of our own experiences but because we are social creatures, we are a collective summary of our own as well as the shared experiences of our society.

The Disney movie lion king opens with the mesmerizing song ‘Circle of life’ with its first few lines sung in Zulu. The powerful vocals and African drum heralding the new born lion cub! The circle of life – we go back to where we come from, and within and around this circle we encounter love, despair, success, failure, happiness, sadness, unexpected pathways and obstacles and back we come to where we began.- in one big circle – the circle of our lives. Also, not so surprisingly, each of our circles are interconnected – crossing paths and intersecting at workplaces, homes, subway stations, online and god knows where else!!

Desmond Tutu beautifully said “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human”. Desmond Tutu was the main modern proponent of Ubuntu. In his book ‘No Future Without Forgiveness’ he describes a person with Ubuntu as ‘open and available to others, affirming of others’.

Ubuntu promotes the following:

– Interconnectedness of everyone to each other and to their surroundings

– No one exists in isolation. We are all part of a larger circle, a large system that effects us and that we are affected by

– It is every person’s duty to share and contribute to the system/ community/society

– Promote fairness and brotherhood. Spread love, integrity and acceptance

Africa’s, Ubuntu philosophy pervades almost all parts of the African continent. It is integrated into all aspects of day-to-day life and is a concept shared by all almost tribes.

In the 1990’s this concept was taken over in South Africa as a guiding ideal for the transition from apartheid to majority rule. Nelson Mandela re-emphasised this innately African philosophy of Ubuntu, to urge people to seek freedom from Apartheid. He said that it is each individual’s duty to support his fellowmen. While each of us must personally grow and enrich our lives we must also enrich the community we live in. We must never forget that we are part of a larger community and with the enrichment and prosperity of the community we will grow as well. This circle, this Ubuntu gives the community and inturn the individual, the power to move mountains.

Several political and private organizations In Africa continue to use Ubuntu as the guiding light for the work they do. Wolmarans (1995:4) reports that South African Airways (SAA) adopted an Ubuntu management system in 1994. Since then, the African Ubuntu philosophy has been a driving force in the company. The secret behind its success has been the publicly stated core values of South African Airways – these include corporate performance, customer orientation, employee care, corporate citizenship, integrity, safety, innovation and teamwork, which are all embodied in the Ubuntu management philosophy. Improved results demonstrate that culture and leadership style plays pivotal roles towards the achievement of a set goals and strategies of an organisation.

As recently as last month, news channels world over aired headlines stating ‘SAA air hostess personified Ubuntu when she tied crying baby to her back’ – a brief article on how an South African Airline hostess Mavis Xotongo came to the rescue of a passenger Kate Whalley – Hands who struggled to put her baby to sleep during a 15 hour flight from New York to South Africa. The 20-month-old baby was restless and crying and unable to sleep.

That was until Xotongo offered to assist and tied the toddler to her back. Kate was able to finish her meal and Xotongo soon handed over a fast asleep baby to the clearly exhausted mother. Kate Whalley-Hands, took to Facebook to proudly share this South African story.

Xotongo had displayed everything Ubuntu stands for – service to one other, empathy, understanding, helpfulness and a sense of duty towards each other. These practices of the Ubuntu philosophy with regard to humanity, care, sharing, teamwork spirit, compassion, dignity, consensus decision-making systems and respect for the environment are all positive elements that could make a contribution towards the improvement of performance of any corporate body or organization.

Values such as solidarity, compassion, generosity, mutuality and commitment to community has found resonance well beyond Africa’s borders. Corporates in Africa and many other continents are adopting the principles of Ubuntu, as they recognize that in this cohesion both individuals and organizations can thrive.

Categorized as Media

Sfumato – “Going up in Smoke’ : A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty

The smile that caught the collective fancy of nations, artists and scholars alike. A smile that is warm but seems to turn melancholic in the blink of an eye. For over 500 years people have been staring at this painting by Leonardo Da Vinci with a sense of bafflement, unable to understand or interpret the expression. People have wondered how Da Vinci was able to create this mysterious expression, where one can’t tell if the lady in the painting is happy or sad. They have also wondered why no other painter has been able to replicate the same.

The incandescent, velvet voice of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” croons softly in the background as I write this. A great piece of art immortalized in a timeless soundtrack, by a legendary singer, remains to date one of my most loved songs.

“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa
Men have named you.
You’re so like the Lady
With the mystic smile”

The Italians have a name for the technique used in this painting- Sfumato – which when translated literally from Italian means “vanished or evaporated – like smoke.”. In painting, Sfumato is defined as smoked: noting a style of painting wherein the tints are so blended that outlines are scarcely perceptible, the effect of the whole being indistinct or misty. In this technique, Da Vinci used several layers of paint to create imperceptible transitions between colours, light and shade, and blended everything “without borders, in the manner of smoke,” his brush strokes so subtle that they are invisible to the naked eye.

Studies of Leonardo Da Vinci’s art over the course of his artistic life reveals that in his early work, Leonardo tends toward sharpness, However over the years, with intense study of proportion, perspective in drawing and its relationship with light and shadow, we can observe an increasing tendency towards blurriness achieved with sfumato, a technique that became Leonardo’s trademark.

Da Vinci embraced Sfumato, the technique of creating ambiguity and a smoky blurred effect to create a masterpiece. This technique really seemed to only be an extension of his everyday self. Da Vinci was fascinated by the unknown. It formed the very backbone of his existence. He was on an endless quest to understand, interpret and make inferences from studying the unknown. His remarkable ability to welcome sfumato and embrace paradoxes and ambiguity, fuelled his curiosity and prepared the ground for unbridled new ways of thinking which led to inventions and discoveries that were centuries ahead of his time.

Sfumato is one of the 7 principles of Da Vinci as exalted by Michael Gelb in this international best seller “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.” Michael Gelb gives all aspiring Leaders insights into how we can apply Da Vinci’s techniques and life lessons, to become more effective and inspiring leaders.

As we have seen with Da Vinci, Sharpness was typically what he mastered at the early stages of his artistic career while blurriness was the priority at the end. Likewise, the more senior your position within the organization the lesser you are presented with crystal clear situations. Ambiguity is what you will need to learn to cope with.

Like Da Vinci, as leaders we must embrace Sfumato – ambiguity and the smoke screen. Most people like the comfort the constructs of the binary offer – yes and no, black and white, right and wrong. But the ever dynamic business world of today thrives on what lies in between. In this VUCA world, the seed of a business decision must be sown, often without the comforts of complete data and without the guarantees of desired outcomes. This seed takes in the various environmental and physical inputs and if conditions are favourable, it may sprout and stem and sustain to yield a tree of success or may wither as a seed, sampling or a young plant. There is no telling. Our interconnected world creates several variables and creates ambiguity. Ambiguity creates complexity and in turn makes it difficult to make decisions. Ambiguity creates uncertainty and stress.

Navigating ambiguity in a large set up cannot be easy. Even the most seasoned leaders are faced with self doubt when venturing into unchartered waters. Yet we must forge ahead despite the fears. Effective leaders recognize the opportunities that increased ambiguity provides in the areas of collaboration, agility and inclusion. They develop skills to push beyond their own fears. In order to cope with ambiguity we must also build flexibility, develop confidence and let go the urge to control every situation. We must learn from wrong decisions and harness the collective intellect of our teams, teach and be taught to and ask all the right questions and strive for clarity when there is none.

Nat king Cole Sings
“Are you warm?
Are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely,
Lovely piece or art? ”

You won’t always know the answers- but embrace the unknown and you just may be able to turn it into a timeless song.

Categorized as Media


‘‘Everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything.’’ — Leonardo Da Vinci

Often times there will be a word that gets lodged in my mind and makes its unwarranted existence felt at the least opportune moments. I have learnt to embrace it and like a sip of good whisky, I roll it around on my tongue and in my head, and indulge all my senses. The word, off late, is Italian – “Connessione”.

I heard in the transit lounge during an international flight, probably calling out to passengers taking a connecting flight. Little did I understand of what was said, but that word now swims in my head. I dwell deeper and learn everything there is to learn of this lovely Italian word meaning connection and the deeper I dig I find it connects right back to Leonardo Da Vinci, the painter architect, engineer and sculptor, who incidentally has been on my mind as well!!

Connessione is one of the 7 principles of Leonardo Da Vinci, a man whose creative genius was well ahead of his times. Da Vinci, the quintessential renaissance man and polymath, was a man of many interests. Everything caught his fancy (and he, mine!) Curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage were only some of his personality traits. Drawing on Da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and legendary works of art, Micheal Gelb’s classic book “ How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci” introduces Seven Da Vincian Principles—the essential elements of genius. If you haven’t read it as yet, it is time to pick it up right now! Gelb’s book is a handbook for everyday genius. It not only gives you insights to Leonardo Da Vinci’s mind and works but also breaks it down to give you practical pointers on exhilarating new ways to think, new ways to solve problems and think creatively. Da Vinci’s 7 principles, as Gleb notes are:

1)Curiosita: An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

2)Dimostrazione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and willingness to learn from mistakes.

3)Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

4)Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

5)Arte/Scienza: The development of the balance between science and art, logic  and imagination. “Whole-brain” thinking.

6)Corporalita: The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

7)Connessione: A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

Da Vinci realised everything in this world was connected. He writes in one of his note books “Learn how to see, realize that everything connects to everything else” Through his detailed studies of objects and concepts that caught his curiosity and attention, Leonardo found that in order to understand something, you had to look at is as part of a larger system and look for the connections that exist everywhere, but may be elusive to the untrained mind. He studied how water vapour rises from the earth to the air sand the parallels in flowing water. He observed how bones and muscles form and their relationship to movement in humans and animals. He constantly looked for similarities and contrasts. He sketched grotesque people and forms so that he could understand the concept of ugliness knowing that this will help him understand beauty. He connected what he saw and experienced with his own values and beliefs. He combined and connected disparate patterns to make new patterns.

Today so much has been studied about interconnectedness and talk to anyone about interconnectedness and the first observation that comes up is that of the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo, and causing a hurricane on the other side of the world. But five centuries before this much theorized observation, Da Vinci wrote “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.”

I learn that understanding this complex yet magnificent web of connections isn’t just something for the mind of a genius. Although it is hard to overstate Leonardo Da Vinci’s brilliance, recent scientific research reveals that most of us probably underestimate your own capabilities. We are gifted with virtually unlimited personal potential for learning and creativity. All we have to do, genius or not, is to open our minds to interconnectedness and the possibilities open themselves.

In order to understand and begin exploring the web of connections around us we must first begin with curiosity and gradually strive towards clarity. Contemplate the concept of wholeness. Write down in your notebook your concept of wholeness. What, precisely, does it mean to you? How can it be expressed most accurately? What is its opposite? What about conflicts that may occur? Expand these concepts to your work place. Study the dynamics of your organization. Sift through the external and internal factors that affect your organization. Explore scenarios and play around with these factors to contemplate its effect on your organization. Try drawing a diagram that represents the entire organization from different perspectives. Use the metaphor of a human body. How does that help you gain some insights into the dynamics at work in the system?

Excising the mind to map connections can soon develop into a habit that fosters interdisciplinary and multi- dimensional thinking. It will help you understand that all actions, patterns and relationships are part of the totality that envelopes the human race and equip you with insights that make you better at decision making and mindfulness.

Categorized as Media


In this write up read about the man for whom science, art, engineering, architecture, warfare and nature seamlessly inhabited the same space – a space that needed to the probed into and studied and understood – for they were all connected. Each discipline free flowing and seamless, they were all separate and beautiful but intertwined in a lover’s embrace.

He sat long hours in a cafe each day. And wrote fervently. Notes on varied topics. Sometime several topics all in one page. Sometimes you would find a to-do list with myriad tasks ranging from Cannons, wall construction, studying the sun, ice skating, optics, and one particular bullet point stating quite casually , “Draw Milan”.

Yes, if you haven’t guessed as yet – Leonardo Da Vinci – The quintessential renaissance man who was a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman —With a curious mind and keen intellect. Da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work. His ideas and body of work have influenced countless artists and made Da Vinci a leading light of the Italian Renaissance.

Of course, while most of us know of his painting, the much acclaimed Mona Lisa and the last supper few us know about his notebooks. It is said that he walked around with a leather bound notebook hanging from his belt and made notes ever so often and “whenever something caught his eye,” he would make a note, or begin “sketching furiously”. “It is useful,” Leonardo wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider.”

In these books, spanning nearly 7200 pages and 20 volumes, we can see that in Da Vinci’s head everything was connected. He made sense of the world by observing and questioning, studying and analysing but more importantly by making connections and drawing inferences form one to another. He was one of our oldest systemic thinkers.

Nature as a whole was alive for Leonardo, and he saw patterns and process in the microcosm as being similar to those in the macrocosm. He frequently drew analogies between human anatomy and the structure of the earth, between muscles and gears. For him, understanding a phenomenon meant connecting it with other phenomenon through a series of similar patterns. When he studied the proportions of the human body he compared them to the proportions of building in Renaissance architecture. His investigations of muscles and bones led him to study and draw gears and levers, thus interlinking animal physiology an engineering, patterns of turbulence in water led him to observe similar pattern in the flow of air or sometimes became the flowing locks of hair of a beautiful woman in one of his paintings.

This ability to interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines is something that we can take a leaf out of and apply it in our own complex work and family lives. It helps us understand that everyone and everything is part of a system. Each person in a team influences and is influenced by the system. Each team member’s role and contribution, however small helps to hold up the system as a whole. As team leaders it may be well worth it to understand the interconnection between the various departments and verticals of our organization.

As thought leaders we may benefit from understanding the interconnections between our organization and other organizations within our industry and even outside of our industry. Just like I read somewhere that it was mathematicians (and not biologists) who are studying fireflies to understand their system of coordination and the patterns they create with their flashing lights and these learning’s are being used in the telecom industry to create better models for radio signals. Connections are everywhere, we just need to open our eyes to it and it will in turn open new horizons.

Categorized as Media


The year was 1929. Under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Lahore congress had finalized the demand of “Purna Swaraj” or full independence for India. It had been declared that 26th January 1930, would be celebrated as the Independence day when people were to take a pledge to struggle for complete independence. But the celebrations attracted very little attention and had poor turn outs. Mahatma Gandhi was a worried man. He realised that there was a disconnect between the different fractions of society and their understanding and interpretation of “Swaraj”.

The Mahatma, realized that although India had been at the struggle for independence for nearly 70 years and “Swaraj” was a word that was at the helm of the freedom movement, it had meant different things to different people. The poor plantation workers in Assam thought of Swaraj as the freedom to visit their native places and freedom of movement in and out of plantations. For the middle class Swaraj meant the spread of education and a share of the administration of the country. For the farmers it meant a reduction in land revenue and rent while tribals in the interior parts of the nation thought Swaraj would get back their traditional rights over the forests allowing them to graze animals and collect firewood and fruit.

Mahatma Gandhi realized the concept of freedom was abstract to most. The movement lacked unity and a unified notion of why they should plough forward.

Freedom fighters were eager for a civil disobedience movement and they awaited Gandhi’s announcement of the program anxiously. For many days, Gandhi had groped in vain for inspiration. Finally it had come to him in a flash- Salt Satyagraha or the Salt March opposing the cruel taxation on Salt and the consumption of untaxed salt and promoting the local manufacture of salt.

When Gandhi announced his plan, even his close aides and associates were completely unconvinced. The Indian National Congress was mystified and incredulous. Of all things, why salt and the insignificant salt tax? Something so insignificant when many larger issues loomed forbodingly?

Superb strategist that Gandhi was, he saw in salt a powerful tool that could unite the people. Salt was the leveller, it was consumed both by the rich and the poor, men and women, rural and urban masses. Salt was the connect

As any good leader should, he had looked for something, anything, irrespective of whether it is big or small, something that connected the masses. We all know the outcome of the Salt march. It brought the till-now latent women force to the foreground with their pans and stoves to make salt and it gastronomically stirred the political sentiment of every Indian, irrespective of their status, sex, cast or Creed.

Important Team building lessons here.

• Often Team members have an unclear understanding and loose interpretations of team goals and corporate visions. It must, hence, be every team leader’s aim to find the common element that would help unify the team and drive all efforts towards well established goals.

• Commonalities drive empathy and compassion and in turn forges unity. Commonalities bridge gaps.

• As leaders, take time to learn about team members, find commonalities or shared interests and begin to highlight them in discussions. Develop a team identity and encourage people to categorize themselves as part of it.

• Engage in some out-of-office activities that enhance a sense of cohesion. Find the connectors, find the commonalities and string them along to form the cord that binds the team to each other and their common goals.

So next time you are at a team dinner look for the salt – and No, I don’t mean the one that is on the table.

Categorized as Media