Hard Wired Humans and Maasai Leadership


The Maasai culture in East Africa has endured for centuries. What are the key elements of their approach to leadership and what can workplace leaders learn from their approach?

In January my wife and I visited Uganda and Kenya, and while in Kenya I had time, on separate occasions, with three Maasai “junior elders”. Two conversations were in English and one translated from Swahili. All three were men, now in their late 30s or early 40s, who were raised in the traditional way. As 3-year-olds they looked after the family’s kid goats, as 5-year-olds they herded the adult goats and as 8-year-olds they were entrusted with the cows. As youngsters all three had their two middle bottom teeth extract with a knife – by their mum – to proudly signify their identify as Maasai. As one described himself, “I am a true child of the Maasai”. 

When they were children, their three communities numbered between about 50 and 170 individuals.

Age Set  

Maasai is a patriarchal society. When boys are around 10-15 years of age they participate in a circumcision ceremony. Upon circumcision the boys are warriors. The boys in a region who become circumcised together are then part of an “age set”. One of my new friends was in an age set of 350 boys, another in a group of 500 and the third in a set of 2,000. They are warriors for about 10 years, and then upon being married they become junior elders. At about 60 years of age they become elders. 

The age set stays as a group through the phases of warrior, junior elder and elder.  

Care in Appointing a Chief  

Each age set has a chief (“Olaunoni” literally translated as “the one we choose”). The chief is appointed by the elders, with great care. The elders obviously make excellent appointments because when I asked my three friends whether there are times when a group might have a poor chief, two of the three looked confused by what was apparently a foreign concept – no, that never happens that a poor chief is appointed. So I dug deeper. It turns out that a chief of the age set is not appointed early on but rather after a number of years from when the age set is formed – plenty of time for the elders to observe candidates, see how they interact, gain input from the age set they will lead and prepare the person they finally appoint. 

There is so much investment in that person that one of my friends said that “mothers don’t like their boys being a candidate for chief – the boy is lost to their family”. Leadership appointments are no hasty decision. The process reminded me of my time during the ‘80s and ‘90s in IBM where the employment model was to hire graduates and managers came from within the crop after quite a few years in the system where they were observed and prepared (and senior people knew whether a leadership candidate had the support of their potential followers).  

With the age set staying connected and moving ultimately to “elders” the young warrior chief will ultimately become the chief of the elders and at that time the head chief of a Maasai region. “He is like an archive,” I was told by Ngila Loitamany. “He has all the information from the beginning. We have no written law. Our unwritten constitution passes down through word of mouth.“  

The Chief's Cabinet (Size of Executive Team)  

I was told that the chief does not rule alone; they have close contacts out in the community who help them as their eyes and ears and to provide counsel and a sounding board for the chief. This group of contacts was described as either the chief’s cabinet, or by one of my friends as “feathers” (a lovely metaphor of wings reaching out in the community). I asked how many cabinet members does the chief have (expecting the answer “7”, being our family-size manageable number)? The answer was indeed “7”. In addition, there are two other key individuals with the chief, basically spiritual leaders.  

Attributes of a Good Leader

In the Maasai model, what are the attributes of a good leader and do the attributes resonate with effective workplace leadership (I was of course anticipating that they do)? 

The first dimension of leadership I was interested in were the selection criteria that the elders consider in choosing the chief. The answers were quite consistent:

  1. Temperament – “the chief will be one who never gets angry”.
  2. They are honest, have no vices “and has never killed anyone”!
  3. They have presence and are a good “mouthpiece between warriors and elders”. 
  4. Intelligent so they can handle the challenges of their role.
  5. Humble – they relate to everyone as friends and “everyone is on their mind”.

One of my friends told me that the chief comes from a high-ranking family. That wasn’t mentioned by the two others. 

A second dimension of leadership I was interested in was whether their specific chief is a good leader. Each of my three friends beamed instantly, “Oh yes, a very good leader!” Again, they were fairly consistent in the factors nominated as to why their leader is a good leader:  

  1. Sociable – “Our chief spends time with people, he’s in touch by talking to people and listening. He just seems to know what’s on people’s minds. He listens to people’s reactions to ideas.”  
  2. Wise – “He’s intelligent and sees into the future. He makes really good judgment calls.” The decisions might relate to disputes over boundaries, grazing rights, access to water and selecting new settlement locations for communities.  
  3. Strict – “He makes decisions that are his to make (after a lot of consultation). We have confidence in his decisions. Yet he is not overly firm or ‘bloody-minded’. He is tough when he needs to be, which is not often.”
  4. Servant – “He is a servant to people and does a lot for the community” (such as regards water supply). 
  5. Fair – “He is respectful of everyone and their rights. He is fair in his decisions.” For example, in a conflict over cattle having access to water, one friend’s chief recently decided that although the water belonged to one clan, the other clan’s cattle still needed water, so the decision he made was to give the waterless group access to water.


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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