People do not perceive worlds but enact them. Different mindsets bring forth different worlds.
–Susanne Cook-Greuter and Ntyatyambo Sibanda
“I am because we are“
I recently attended a fascinating Growth Edge Network community presentation – materials from which are quoted in the epigram above – by developmental psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter and Johannesburg-based coach Ntyatyambo Sibanda juxtaposing the WEIRD worldview of adult maturation with the southern African cosmological paradigm that includes Ubuntu. (Here WEIRD means White, Educated, Integrally-informed, Rational and Developmental; elsewhere it can mean White, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic.) If I accurately understood her, Sibanda described Ubuntu as an “I am because we are” ability to pay simultaneous attention – through “multiple channels” – to the interconnectedness of self, community and the whole of existence. (It’s energy: Sibanda explained that linguistically ntu indicates a dynamic life force.) While there was a great deal more to the discussion than what I’ll offer below, the presenters identified three intriguing differences in how adult development theory and Ubuntu make sense of human growth that have enormous leadership implications.
Adult development theory, Ubuntu and interconnectedness
According to Cook-Greuter and Sibanda, adult development theory has a directional bias that is forward and upward (indeed, it is often referred to as “vertical development”), its trajectory evolves from more individual to more communal, and it generally privileges cognitive (head-based) complexity. By contrast, Ubuntu has the more fluid element of remembering or “looking back to go forward,” its trajectory evolves more from communal to individual (notably, “always in relationship”), and it emphasizes heart- and body-based intelligence gained through present-moment experience (including ceremonies and rituals) rather than cognition.
The ancient Ubuntu journey to becoming a healer that Sibanda specifically outlined mirrors aspects of what we in the West might consider the process of gaining leadership wisdom or maturity. For example, following several initiating steps, the first key “gate” in the Ubuntu healer’s journey is a ceremony called Vuma ukufa, or accepting one’s death, during and after which the grasp of the ego is loosened through various kinds of ongoing internal work. This reminds me of Western pathways toward servant leadership in its purest manifestation, reflecting the willingness to – typically, but not necessarily, metaphorically – die into a new identity for the sake of something vaster than the “small-s” self (which also entails various kinds of ongoing internal work).
Leader as healer: evolving the WEIRD mindset
Increasing numbers of WEIRD people in my discipline who are exploring the edges of our knowledge-based paradigms are awakening to the fact that, as these systems grow mind-bogglingly more “sophisticated,” it turns out non-Western and Indigenous ways of sensing, relating and being are far more developed for handling complexity. I’ll speak to personal experience, here: my WEIRD worldview is comparatively toddleresque when it comes to traversing the messy, mysterious territory of being human in absurd circumstances of my culture’s own making. How to live on the planet without committing mass murder-suicide is merely one example. Different mindsets bring forth different worlds.
It’s my impression that North Americans’ and Europeans’ gradual enlightenment by African and Indigenous cultures around the globe in recent years has begun to seriously influence the theory and praxis of leadership in the West. In their healthy, non-appropriating and partnering forms, respectful integrations of mindsets (often entangled with Western mystical traditions as well as Middle Eastern and Asian spiritual wisdom) are nudging WEIRD leadership into less rational, less linear and therefore profoundly more effective responses to disruption. The Western ideal of a solo out-front, command-and-control leader (think: Putin) has been eroding since the turn of the century, and we are currently watching it evolve in real time into a figure more like the healer (think: Zelensky); communal and embodied, sensing and leading from anywhere inside (and outside) a system by being utterly dialed-in to the present moment in service of the greater good. As such, the healing leader – even, or especially, in her warrior iteration – inspires others’ courage, agency and leadership for inclusive, life-giving purposes. In Nicholas Janni’s pragmatic and spiritually luminous book published last summer, he explicitly distinguishes between leader as executor (what we do) and leader as healer (who we be), advising how to make this shift. Similarly, another favorite book of mine from 2022, Unleash Your Complexity Genius by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin, expounds upon how to access your own nervous system’s capacity to handle complexity through deceptively simple “geniuses” we’re all born with, such as breathing, noticing, connecting, and relating to ourselves and others with humor, love and gratitude.
This is not “woo-woo” stuff. Those of us whose instinct is to label it dismissively are likely resisting with our heads, fearing our hearts will break if it turns out that what we secretly believe is not true. Resistance to What Is is understandable and deserving of compassionate patience with ourselves, because – as none other than Viktor Frankl observed – “What is to give light must endure burning.” In other words, it is for good reasons we fear our own power, and we are never more powerful than when we are Love.
For further exploration:
- Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, the African Way by Mungi Ngomane (Harper, 2019), a guidebook by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s grand-daughter.
- For connections between Ubuntu and Buddhist philosophy, see this Lion’s Roar article.
- Spring Cheng’s approach to linking adult development with Chinese spirituality; I recommend starting with “Evolution toward Wholeness”. In a related vein, if Taosim is of interest, see “The Science of Life and Wellbeing: Integrating the New Science of Consciousness with the Ancient Science of Consciousness” by Frederick Chavalit Tsao (Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, Vol. 18, 2021).
- The spiritual philosophy and practice of angel Kyodo williams, the Zen Buddhist cleric and social justice activist. I suggest her enduringly provocative “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett: “The World Is Our Field of Practice.”
- Otto Scharmer’s “U Theory” work, his Presencing Institute and its Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change; I loved (what I was able to comprehend) in the article “Presencing with Soul” by Jennifer Bockler.
- Contemplate Ubuntu (“I am because we are”) alongside the Western bee-keeper’s creed, “Una apis, nulla apis” (“one bee is no bee”), which I discovered while reading James Bridle’s astounding new book (excerpted here).