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Ubuntu: See and Be Seen

I was at a restaurant recently with some friends. It was THE place to see and be seen.

What was so fascinating to watch was that no one was seeing or being seen. They may have been “talking” with another, but their eyes were constantly scanning the room to see who else was there – maybe there was someone there who was more important or someone deemed more fashionable to be seen with. In actuality, it appeared that there was a lot of talking going on with no connection and a lot of looking going on, but no real seeing.

In my restaurant experience, there was no seeing; therefore, there was no real connection. I began to reflect on this as it relates to how we choose to lead. How often, in the pace and chaos of our day, do we see those with whom we interact? And – on the flipside – how often are we allowing ourselves to be seen? We talk, but don’t really connect; we look without really seeing.

As a leader, how are you making yourself visible? How are you allowing yourself to be seen? Are you making assumptions, barking out orders, or are you really seeing and connecting with those you are leading?

How often as leaders are you paying attention to all of the forecasts in your world and willing to make bold executive decisions different from the original plan, as to make the most of your opportunities based on a new forecast? How often do you manage situations versus feeling you are being managed by situations?

A recent Google study shows that people who feel seen and heard feel valued and are more engaged. Making that effort is not rocket science. Moreover, it simply requires dropping our own mask(s) so others feel comfortable dropping theirs. As simple as that might sound, it’s not easy. It requires intention, attention and commitment. It is leadership from the inside out.

South Africans use the term ubuntu which loosely translated means “I see you”. According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows:

“‘A person is a person through other people’. Ubuntu strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; our humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other.”

Ubuntu starts with a courageous commitment to ourselves. A commitment to be vulnerable and authentic; a commitment to show up as human, first and foremost. It continues when we take the time to connect to the humanness, the heart of those with whom we are working. Our tendency is to act with the content or talking about what we are doing. We experience this when we visit the doctor for an appointment, when we are cashing out at the grocery store, when we are meeting with clients and teams. We are not engaging in conversation. We are not seeing each other. We are simply checking the boxes and conducting a transaction.

Our sacred humanness is the one thing we all have in common. Yet, we are so busy looking at what people are doing that we miss seeing who they are. So, the most effective way to evolve from transaction to connection is to recognize and see others first as human beings versus employees – people who get stuff done. Connect to your uniqueness as well as theirs. Be present to the sacredness and brilliance of their being and be willing to show up with yours in full view. The way in which we connect, allow others to see us and the way in which we really see others will directly impact the way in which every message is received and the quality of how relationships evolve.

How do we move to ubuntu – that sacred place where we can see ourselves and others for precisely and brilliantly who they are?

  1. Practice reflection and radical self-awareness
    This is a theme you will see throughout my work. I believe that reflection and self-awareness are the cornerstones of growth – individually and collectively.
  2. Think about the people who have really seen you
    Regardless of your political leanings, it is said that one of Bill Clinton’s greatest strengths is that no matter how crowded the room, if he is talking to you, it feels like you are the only person in the room and the most important to him in that moment. For some people, this moment alone has been transformative.
    There is nothing worse than feeling invisible. Think about the people who really see you. How do you know they do? What impact does that have on you?
  3. Set the intention
    See yourself and others as human beings FIRST versus a means to an end. We are all putting one foot in front of the other – each with our own unique gifts and challenges. Recognize this uniqueness. See the brilliance. Set the intention to start with your strengths and leverage those strengths to help others recognize, connect to, and realize their own.
  4. Show up in love; care for yourself and others
    That sounds a little squishy and soft, right? And yet, it may be the hardest thing you will do. Every leader wants a highly-engaged team. Practice self-compassion so you can begin to show up in courage and compassion to others. Then, watch the engagement soar.
  5. Remember – humanity is our common ground.
    It’s really that simple. As Eze says, we owe it to each other. As leaders, how can we show up more in our humanity and in kindness and recognize the humanity of others? What difference might it make to each of us individually, to our teams, clients, and organizations?

When we choose to practice ubuntu – to see ourselves and “the other” – we transform ourselves and our relationships with others. And when we experience that transformation, we have the privilege and honor of helping each other to see and connect to the meaning of our work and our lives.