Lessons From Loisaba: What the Masai can teach us about HR

Jun 28 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Erik Ole Kasana is a CEO with a difference and his organisation is a little more longstanding and remote than most. For one thing, he is an elder from a Masai community living near Loisaba in Kenya, a six hour drive north from Nairobi.

But, like all leaders, he is responsible for coaching and supporting his community to sustain and evolve its culture in extreme conditions and in the face of new and ever-changing circumstances.

Coming together
Leadership specialist Anthony Willoughby of Willoughby Mapping first met the warrior-turned-elder on a trip to Kenya in June 2001. Anthony realised that Kosana’s responsibilities in his community were very much those of a business leader.

At a subsequent meeting with the Academy for Chief Executives, an organisation that offers peer group coaching to CEOs of SMEs where leaders can learn from leaders, Willoughby and Sue Cheshire, managing director of the Academy, agreed to bring the African and UK leaders together.

Overcoming some major logistical obstacles, the two cultures came face to face in a seminar at IBM’s London offices in May 2002.

One of the participants, Academy member Simon Lester of Venue Resource Group, describes how the process worked: “Each of us took the role of someone in the Masai community and had to communicate the objectives from the elders, through the young elders and the chief warrior, to the warriors.

“Our first attempt failed and people became disengaged,” he says. “On our second attempt the elders had far clearer objectives and the exercise was a great success.”

Territory mapping
One of the techniques Kosana used is ‘territory mapping’. He asked the CEOs to draw a picture of how they see their world in order to help them to understand both their objectives and where their enemies lie.

Overcoming initial doubts about the relevance of this method, Neal Landsberg of Marketrite was won over: “It was an amazing, profound and really valuable experience. I was dubious before the event but I was amazed at the parallels between the two realities of tribal and organisational life, they really match well.

“The combination of modelling tribal life and mapping really cut to the quick of organisation issues,” he says. “It clarified just how important a company culture is and how important it is to regularly ‘practice’ that culture at meetings and events.”

Kosana explained that his ‘promotion’ through the many stages of life for the Masai, from warrior to junior elder at the young age of 34, came from his community’s recognition of his leadership qualities.

Cheshire takes up the theme of development and recognition: “Best practice needs to be integrated, not preached,” she says. “Real work on coaching yourself results in the ability to coach others.”

Paul Ugo of Ugo Foods Groups Ltd extracts a key lesson from this: “It is a system in which people give first rather than expecting to take. When people ask, ‘How are you?’ they genuinely want to know the answer.

“They actually respect their elders because they know that they have knowledge that is valuable and they want to learn from them. It is a functional system that works for the right reasons, rather than a contrived system that is forced to work.”

Five Essential Qualities of a Masai Elder

  • Vision – to see beyond the issue and challenges of the day
  • Communication – to communicate with courage, clarity and passion, even if the message is not of their creation
  • Generosity of time and spirit
  • Respect – respect others first to earn respect for yourself
  • Punctuality – the Masai see punctuality as the most effective form of role modelling, showing value and respect

Contacts: Sue Cheshire, Academy for Chief Executives - www.chiefexecutive.com Tel: 07000 223369 Anthony Willoughby and Chris Howe, Willoughby Mapping - www.willoughbymapping.com 01329 22752029 227 520