Collaborative Leadership Blog

American Ubuntu: Individualism vs. Collective Responsibility

“None of us is safe until all of us are safe.”

–UN Secretary-General António Guterres—

As Covid-19 continues to spiral out of control, it is revealing a cultural and ethical chasm in our society: Will each of us do what is necessary to protect each other, or is it everyone for themselves? Is it “Me” or “We”? In South African Zulu culture, the word Ubuntu means “I am because we are.” It is a sense of collective responsibility for the welfare of everyone in your family, your village, and your country. It is a cultural and ethical norm. What if we were to adopt American Ubuntu? What might that look like?

Let’s take mask-wearing, for example. The scientific evidence is now clear that if everyone in the US wore a mask and practiced social distancing for 8 weeks, we could crush the virus. But that would take collective responsibility, a sense of concern for others. To rephrase what Jacinda Adern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand said, “Act like you have the virus.” Since masks are primarily about protecting others from us, if we were to behave that way, out of caring, empathy, and ethical concern, we could crush the virus. New Zealand has—in 3 months. Their economy is open again.

Or take the potential vaccine. A recent Associated Press/NORC poll found that half of US citizens will not take a Covid-19 vaccine even if one is discovered, which 20% believe will be in 2021 some time. If half of our citizens are unwilling to get the vaccine, which most believe is essential to fully re-opening, how are we ever supposed to conquer this virus? Apparently we live in a “survival of the fittest”, individualistic culture where our concern for others takes a back seat to “Me”. It’s an “all about me” culture.

What would it take to shift this behavior? What would it take to transform our culture, like we did in World War II, where there was a shared national objective of winning the wars on two fronts? What will it take now for us to create American Ubuntu?

  • National Collaborative Leadership: To date there has been an abdication of national leadership. We need collaborative leaders who have a heart, compassion for human suffering, a vision, a plan, and the wherewithal to implement it
  • A National Reckoning: Like we are having a national reckoning with institutional racism and police brutality, Covid-19 is also a national reckoning with the chasm that exists in our healthcare system, with 65-70% of those most directly affected being people of color, and with an economic system that protects the 1% over the needs of the 99%
  • Personal Impact: Our leaders need to help us all see that each of us is directly impacted by this disease, even if we are not yet infected, in the hospital, or worse
  • A National Movement: Rather than waiting for others to act, find a vaccine, or for the disease to hit us, what if we were to have a national movement like Black Lives Matter? What if we were to have a Crush Covid march for life? What if we had leadership rise up in every community, like Indivisible did, to insist on mask-wearing, social distancing, and crushing the virus?
  • Science, Not Politics: Whatever we do next, science must be our guide, not political manipulation. Politics must be removed from decision-making about this pandemic, from the CDC, the FDA, and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Fauci must be put in charge of our national healing

To restore the public trust, we need principled, committed, ethical leadership. To heal the cultural chasm that Covid has revealed, we need American Ubuntu, a recognition of our collective responsibility for all, because as Secretary-General Guterres has said, “None of us is safe until all of us are safe.”


Dr. Edward Marshall is a former business owner, and now an Adjunct Professor who teaches leadership at Duke University; ICF coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, author of the forthcoming book: Leadership’s 4th Evolution: Collaboration for the 21st Century, September, 2020 which can be found at:



Twitter: @4thEvolutnLeadr

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