Ubuntu: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration

The autographed page of the review copy I received of Ubuntu: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration said “Ivana – Love your work, Keep it up Sawa Bona – Bob Nelson.” I’ve received autographed copies before, but I wasn’t sure what Sawa Bona was. I had to read the book to find out (more on that later).

Ubuntu Teamwork and CollaborationI received Ubuntu as a review copy, but my MBA has an emphasis in teamwork and collaboration, so this book is something I would have bought on my own.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s a 5 x 7 book with 132 pages in font large enough for even my middle-aged eyes to read comfortably.

Bob Nelson, bestselling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, and Stephen Lundin, bestselling co-author of Fish, have put their heads and experiences together and created a business novel that will give you an MBA’s worth of management insights in the couple of hours it takes to read the book.

What Is Ubuntu? I Am, Because We Are

“In Africa there is a concept known as Ubuntu – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.” — Nelson Mandela

Ubuntu is the story of John Peterson.  John had always been a terrific worker at BullsEye, but when he was promoted to management, he found out that he faced more challenges than he had bargained for.  Not only that, but his personal life was falling apart as well.  When it rains, it pours.

Then along comes Simon, a young student from South Africa.  When Simon overhears John’s frustration about having to come in over the weekend, he skips out on his college final to come in on Saturday to help John finish some poorly done paperwork.  When John asks him why, Simon says simply, “It is Ubuntu.” Soon after,  John becomes Simon’s student in the way of Ubuntu.

As luck would have it, BullsEye is running a contest, and Simon is one of the winners of the grand prize – a trip to South Africa.  John, Simon and several other BullsEye employees go on the journey of a lifetime and learn the principles of Ubuntu firsthand. They come back with a plan and soon BullsEye is transformed and is not only a great place to work, but is successful as well.

How to Read This Book

Like many business novels, you don’t want to read this as if it were a Shakespearean work of art.  This is not its purpose.  Read this book as an allegory.  As you read through the lessons and experiences of the characters, look inside yourself and see what lessons you can learn.  The authors include outlines and notes the characters made that you can use as inspiration.

A Few Lessons From the Book

One thing I really like about the book is the call-out boxes sprinkled throughout.  Each features a Ubuntu principle you can think about and reflect on.  Here are a few examples:

  • We tell ourselves stories to explain the events in our lives.  Being connected to others provides a necessary opportunity to challenge the stories that might be hurting our performance and inhibiting our growth.
  • Ubuntu doesn’t mean respecting bad work; it does mean respecting the person who does the work.
  • As long as there are employees who think of themselves as little people, the work of Ubuntu is not done.

I don’t know about you, but for each bullet I can think of an example of a time or place where I could have applied each of these principles.  In fact, I recognize that it’s not too late to go back to the folks that were impacted by my actions and acknowledge their work.

Who Should Read Ubuntu?

Ubuntu isn’t just for business owners or HR professionals. If you volunteer or are involved in church or school organizations, you’ll find a lot of value in Ubuntu.  In fact, a great way to bring your team closer together before starting a project is to get everyone a copy, take the weekend to read it, and then talk about how you will use the principles to work together.

What’s Sawa Bona and How Should You Respond?

I started this review by telling you that Bob Nelson signed his note with “Sawa Bona.” Sawa Bona is an African phrase that means “I see you.”  It acknowledges the connection that we share as human beings.  The proper response to “Sawa Bona” is to smile widely and say “Sikhona” — which means “I am here.”   It reminds me of the greeting “Namaste,” which means “I see the light inside you.”

One of the parting thoughts in the book is that the first step toward Ubuntu is gratitude and acknowledging the connections that we share.

Ubuntu is a fun book you can read quickly to learn lessons that will guide you for a lifetime of working with people. Sikhona.


Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."

4 Reactions
  1. Hi Ivana,

    I really enjoyed reading this review so I am sure i’ll love reading the book. The concept for me was new but it’s a very interesting one. It shows that as humans we all are inter connected, not just at work but also generally in life and that there’s so much to give and contribute. Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam

  2. Ivana
    I was not familiar with what the term/word Ubuntu meant, but I’ve been a user of the open source Ubuntu OS and always presumed it meant something community oriented. Your review is excellent and I’m going to pick up the book for a group I am part of — that is organizing a community event. Great timing. Thanks!

  3. Dear Ivana

    Good post. Would be interested to read this book ASAP. The principle is very attractive — I am, as we are.

    We certainly grow in our knowledge by sharing them with others. More than anything, most of the time mental barrier come across in team working. Hope I can get more tips on how to build team.