Ubuntu – NOT Accountability


There is a term in South African culture called “ubuntu,” and  I have heard it described two ways.

1) I am who I am because of who we are.

2) I am at my best when you are at your best. I cannot be at my best unless you are at your best.


Nelson Mandela used the term when trying to lead and heal a splintered country.

When you break it down, it is the ultimate form of accountability. I was working with a tech company last year dealing with an accountability issue. Instead of talking about accountability and putting his employees on the defensive, the Director fell in love with the concept of ubuntu.

In essence, instead of preaching or talking down to someone about accountability, ubuntu describes a culture where everyone cares about and looks out for one another. Not because it is a policy, but because they understand and recognize that as a team we are able to perform better when our coworkers are at their best.

It seems ideal and “feel good” – but it’s actually common sense.

If you work with someone who has all of the time, resources, and support to get their job done, they will be able to do their work to their best. And, if you rely on them to any degree, odds are they will uphold their end of the work.

Conversely, if they are struggling professionally or personally, odds are their work will suffer. And, if you depend on them, you will suffer as well.

So, in addition to caring about your coworker you are making sure that both of you can continue to work most effectively. If you get caught up only thinking and acting for yourself you will find that you are limited to what you can accomplish.

In improvisation we talk about making your partner look like a genius. As you do so – you look like the genius in the process. You both win!

If you called this being accountable to your partner on stage it would be the same thing, yet making them look like a genius tends to resonate a bit more. Do you agree?

Recently I read an article about companies adapting an unlimited time-off policy. Can you imagine that? Crazy, right?

Yet, if you operated under ubuntu – true accountability – you would not and could not take advantage of a policy when you are accountable to others. You couldn’t “peace out” unless you worked with the team to make sure everyone was taken care of in covering you – and vice versa. Instead of adhering to a disconnected HR rule, you get to work with your team to work out what is best for each of you.


I am who I am because of who we are.

When I make you look like a genius, we all win.

Make that shift in your work culture – and the accountability will take care of itself.


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