What can the Maasai teach us about leadership?


Gene Early

01 November 2016

“Welcome, you are part of our family now. You are Maasai.” Salaton Ole Ntutu, the Maasai chief greeted our team of sixteen. “In our culture, there is no such word as stranger. You are welcome.”

“Kind words, interesting concept,” I thought to myself. Somehow, I needed to wait and see. My slightly cynical, Western-oriented mind had read similar words, but could only rarely remember having had the full experience of such hospitality. Too many times my idealistic hopes had risen only to be partially fulfilled. Our team, part of the twenty-nine people on an Open Quest to Kenya facilitated by our Leaders’ Quest four some (www.leadersquest.org), only had half a day, a night, and a morning to be with the Maasai. It would take something special to convince me that I was not in some way an “other” to them.

The truth is, however, it only takes a relationship…or in my case two…to be convinced. The first was watching Salaton and his close friend and Maasai warrior, the tall one called “Baby Giraffe,” interact. They grew up together. They entered the warrior stage of life together. They endured the painful initiation rites which train the warrior to face off the physical challenges of the lion and leopard, as well as the psychological challenges of leadership. In this relationship, I saw two men loving and respecting each other so deeply that they were free to play, to tease, to sing, and to dance together along with using the subtlest of influence to direct those they led.

The other relationship was between me and Baby Giraffe, the one I now call “big brother.” With three others we walked for an hour and a half to a sacred campsite. In this time, Baby Giraffe explained the ways of the Maasai. More importantly, he extended to me and my colleagues the deep hospitality of being family, not a stranger. The meaning of “no stranger” can only be felt. It Is insufficient as a concept. It is an experience of true embrace. Walking through scrub lands, plucking aloe vera and other medicinal plants, being gently corrected as we failed to see and stop for a Maasai elder’s blessing—these and other small in scale but enormous in impact interactions contributed to that embrace. Once we got to the camp site, we were greeted by the most enormous campfire I’ve ever seen, surely a whole tree was consumed over the course of late afternoon, evening, and night. It would be needed to cook the two goats being slaughtered for our evening meal and to warm our night sleep. Surrounding it were sage bedding, created for us…and as another signal of their awareness, modern Coleman tents available if any of us would chose not to sleep under the stars.

The evening around the fire was much like that of other experiences of camping. Preparing food, stoking the fire, singing, the chatter of many conversations. What was different was the joy that the Maasai men demonstrated. Our team was obviously the occasion for their great feast as well as ours. They ate the roasted goat with gusto. They drunk fermented aloe vera root. They sang. They danced. We were invited in and danced with them. Yet it was clear that the rhythmic beat of their feet and movement of their bodies combined with the boom of their deep voices was something more—an invitation into another world where all is one, inter-connectedness manifest in action.

In the morning, after a beautiful night’s sleep on the sage with stars sparkling in the sky overhead and being awakened with the symphony of the birds’ calls, we were invited into another of the Maasai rituals—greeting the morning. Each of us received a red ocher mark on our forehead and then we circled together as the morning was greeted. We joined in an honoring of God, creator of all things. We faced each direction with Maasai leaders praying for blessings on the day and each of us. It was a reminder of the order of the universe, the recognition of our place in it—eternity in our hearts, and the acknowledgment of our relationship to the higher power holding this order all together.  Following breakfast, our team prepared to leave. I felt the most precious feeling. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in this emotional space where everything felt to be in order and even the conflicts and challenges we spoke about with Salaton, Baby Giraffe, and others had their place. We truly were invited into this family, embraced with love and kindness, and instructed in a way of life all too often lost in the bustle of our busy world.

 What can the Maasai teach us about leadership? 

Culture influences leadership style. The Maasai have a well-ordered, traditional tribal culture in which roles are well understood, rituals ordering life are honored, and rules of engagement are followed. And yet…Salaton is married to an American wife (who loves the community as well as him), encourages other Maasai to gain advanced education (and return to the community with new wisdom), and travels the world (as a Kenyan cultural ambassador). He knows the essentials and non-essentials of his culture and is willing to stand up for his values – both collective and personal. The lesson: If I value the experience of being with Salaton and the Maasai and want to live this way (which I do), I have to create a culture that supports me. It means being proactively intentional in bonding a loving, respectful, leadership band which is able to sustain the culture amidst my modern, individualistically oriented, Western world. Leading together beats leading alone. Salaton is the chief in a patriarchal society. Watching him and Susan share responsibility for the success of his business initiative – Maji Moto Cultural Camp (http://majimotomaasaicamp.com/) – is instructive. Clearly Susan loves her life and knows her strengths. As she says, “I know how to lead from the middle and the back.” Significantly, Salaton is so secure in his leadership that he readily shares responsibility with others…and with Susan. Her operational skills make things hum. His visionary skills create new opportunity. The lesson: The power of two (and more) in agreement, respecting the other, being responsible for the whole, exceeds the power of one. To lead together requires a re-ordering of ego. When the other excels, I need to truly celebrate – and vice-versa. There is joy in such leading.

To lead together successfully requires intimacy of relationship. Such intimacy is born of internal security in one’s self; positive, shared experience with the other, and opportunities to work together. The warmth, affection, and camaraderie of Salaton and Baby Giraffe is infectious. They each have their own areas of responsibility – eg Baby Giraffe has already provided water for his area by raising funds for two bore holes and continues to work to bring more clean water to his community. Their individual competence is multiplied when they join together to lead. The lesson: Intimacy requires vulnerability, cooperation, and emotional sensitivity. My challenge in stepping up as a leader, and learning from the Maasai, is to take my opportunities of working with other leaders to increase my vulnerability, cooperation, and emotional sensitivity and invite them to do the same. In this way we may achieve a common objective for the good of the whole.

Intimate relationship presupposes love and respect. 

Respect is key to the Maasai culture. To be a leader means the need to respect the other in everything one does. As Baby Giraffe said on our walk, “Even if a man has 1000 cattle (a sign of extreme material wealth in this culture), if he doesn’t show respect to the children, the women, and other men, no one will show up for his rituals or festivals.” In other words, material things do not gain respect in the Maasai culture. It is relationship-based on respect that brings respect…and to my observation, love. The lesson: It appears that the key here is mutuality. To be respected, and loved, one must respect and love. Inherent in this mindset is the worthiness of the other, that each one is worthy by their very being, not simply by their ability to perform a task or to achieve personal success. It suggests to me that my next step in integrating this lesson is to increase my awareness of the worthiness of all I encounter. And to respond to that in them, no matter what they do, or how they do it. It doesn’t mean there are no sanctions or consequences – just that the starting point is the worthiness of the other.

Great leadership invites identification. 

Everyone in our team of sixteen felt the impact of our time with the Maasai. For sure, I recognised that the experience I had with them, and especially with Saloton and Baby Giraffe, brought admiration, respect, and identification. I know that what I have seen and felt in their presence is something worth emulating, because I want those I lead to have this same ‘felt experience’. In other words, that “I don’t want to leave his presence because I become more fully who I am when I am in it.” The lesson: I say to myself (and look to embody these takeaways): “Know yourself. Love and respect yourself. With respect, honor the worthiness of each person, all living things, and the world you live in. Turn your attention to the good of the whole. Take great joy in being with your family in which there is no stranger.” And I am reminded by the Maasai’s great leadership of how and when I do exhibit these qualities. My challenge is to increase the degree to which they are a way of being and not just occasional occurrences in the flow of life.



It is possible to bend time. Though I chronologically spent only nineteen hours with the Maasai, the experienced time with them is significantly greater. As in such defining moments, the impact of my Maasai brothers’ and sisters’ presence continues to vibrate within me. The richness of life lived where leadership follows that life is deeply etched in my mind and my spirit. The experience has re-organised and re-vitalised my view of the world. A living example of great leadership will do that. I now have a crystal clear, external manifestation of such an example. It has organised my internal perception of such great leadership (and ambition for more). I will look to see it ever more clearly show up in my life and work. Will you join me?