Our story starts at the offices of Boston Celtics where coach Doc Rivers is scratching his head to figure out how to create team spirit in a team full of star players.
To find out the answer, he had to travel (mentally) all the way to Africa.
How the Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title
Summer 2007. Boston Celtics pulled the tradeoff and secured Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce (later known as the Big Three). Fans were thrilled. The head coach, Doc Rivers was concerned. All three players were leaders and so Doc knew his job would be super hard. He sat down with them in his office and told them: “If we are gonna win, we are gonna have to sacrifice. You will have to change. If you want to shoot every time, wrong team. If you wanna do whatever you want, wrong team.” Doc knew his words wouldn’t be enough to get the Big Three to buy in to being a team. Contemplating this challenge at the end of a long board meeting, a lady approached him and said: “Doc, your team is gonna be amazing. Have you ever heard of ubuntu?” She wrote the word down and urged him to look it up and study it. “It’s not a word, Doc,” she kept saying. “It’s a way of life. It’s a way of living. It’s not a word. Look it up, Doc.” Doc went home that evening and looked it up. He stayed up all night learning about it. It was perfect. Just what he needed for his team. The missing ingredient for success. That year, the Celtics won the NBA title against Kobe Bryant’s LA Lakers, with an unbelievable comeback. They lived and breathed ubuntu, on the court and outside it. Ubuntu got them to the top. 🏆 The story is narrated by Doc Rivers himself in Netflix ’s documentary series The Playbook.
What is Ubuntu then? Ubuntu is the essence of being human in the Zulu and Xhosa languages. Loosely translated it means: "I am because you are" "A person is a person through other people" Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained Ubuntu as follows: A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu this way: A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him... The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?
Ubuntu in practice
(a story you may have heard before but worth reminding of) An anthropologist asked the tribal children in an African village to race towards a tree where he had placed a basket full of fruit. The winner in the race would get the fruit basket as a prize. However, the children held hands and ran towards the tree together. The anthropologist asked the children why they did that. Didn't they want to win? The children replied: “Ubuntu. How can one of us be happy to win if others are sad.”
How can ubuntu work for companies?
To find examples of ubuntu around the world, look for disasters. If you observe how people (and the media) come together for those hours or days following a tragic event, that's ubuntu. Hurricane disasters, rescue missions, pandemics. If it's just for extraordinary events, and for a limited time, isn't it utopic to imagine ubuntu in the competitive business world? Maybe not. If you look closely, various aspects of ubuntu have implications for competitive advantage: Decision making: Ubuntu is about decisions by consensus, circular process, multiple perspectives, dispute resolution. This approach might be slow to action but greater commitment to goals means more long-run effectiveness and efficiency. Essentially, it means better implementation of actions decided and successful transition. How much does your company value that? Relationships: Ubuntu upholds mutual respect, reciprocity and empathy. People are intrinsically motivated to contribute more when they are valued members. This means higher employee motivation, productivity, loyalty. How much are these worth? Language and communication: With ubuntu, communication is an act of creation. The words we choose matter. Shared understanding of deeper meanings supports complex consensus. How valuable is for the whole team to be on the same page? Perhaps, instead of racing for a "fruit basket" or game MVP title, we can remind ourselves of ubuntu and aim for the NBA championship?