· 10 min read · Features

Natural born leaders

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What can Maasai tribesmen teach western business? <strong>Nicola Harrison</strong> camps out with a group of UK businessmen on a five-day programme in the tribe's inhospitable territory to find out.

A wounded, blood-soaked young warrior limps into view. His arms have been savagely clawed. He has just risked his life protecting his cow from the jaws of a ferocious leopard and he needs medical attention. The sight is a dramatic one for myself and the group of five forty-something men who have flown 4,000 miles from the comfort of their offices to the seemingly perpetual heat and dust of Kenya's Maasai Mara where danger, it seems, lies around every corner. We are at Warrior School to soak up the knowledge of the ancient Maasai tribes and rediscover what the western world appears to have forgotten: a wisdom that could transform UK business.

Over the coming week our Jeep will break down in 'lion country', we will witness charging elephants, dance with Maasai tribesmen, and hear a chief tribesman's unique take on leadership. We will be asking: 'Which customers are our goats?'; 'Which ones our cows?' - all to discover what it is that makes the Maasai tribes able to survive in such an inhospitable environment. Training company ChangeMaker runs the experience. It hopes delegates will take this know-how back to their workplaces, and lead their own tribes (their people) to prosper in uncertain times. But can this African adventure really compare with what air-conditioned classrooms have been teaching for years? My task was to find out.

Organisations rarely fly employees to East Africa to discover how to lead. But according to Chris Howe, director of ChangeMaker,and the brains behind the trip, there is much delegates can learn. "The UK over-complicates its business," he says. "We need to get people to understand how valuable individuals are to business. You just can't do that in a hotel in Slough."

He claims just four days spent there early in his career in pursuit of the respect and accountability that exists in tribes, taught him more than a decade spent reading management books.

"Tribes have simplicity," he says. "Organisations are more about complexity. The Maasai are in tune with their environment. Theirs is a culture where there is incredibly high passion, total commitment and great enthusiasm. They develop people's talent. The biggest leadership threat facing British business is not doing this.If we could learn some of this, the payback would be phenomenal."

The five-day programme, taking place a month before Kenya's bloodbath began, is certainly no holiday. It is more a camping trip with a business twist. Maasai warriors patrol outside 'Cotter's Camp' to ward off roaming elephants, while inside course members are immersed in thoughtful reflection and discussion.

On one of our walking safaris, Howe tells me that he has picked up countless lessons from his many Africa trips, and it is easy to see why. As we walk, our knowledgeable Maasai guide, Tumate, points out aloe trees that help heal wounds, as well as fallen trees that tell him an elephant has been close by. In turn, Howe and his enthusiastic business partner, Anthony Willoughby, are keen to point out what this can teach us in the workplace: the importance of knowing every inch of one's territory, including its pitfalls and its goldmines.

This seems like basic stuff but they say it is surprising how many companies get it wrong. According to them, the Maasai are exemplars of great leaders. The innate behaviours these tribesmen exhibit are the ones recommended by popular leadership books. This extract from David Macleod and Chris Brady's new book, The Extra Mile: How to Engage your People to Win, is a case in point: "Employees will not believe in your vision, strategy and engagement agenda if they don't think you believe in it yourself. Authentic leaders live their values every moment of the day. By authenticity, we mean that words must be consistent with deeds."

The word ‘authenticity' is banded around a lot on this trip. Howe and Willoughby are convinced the Maasai have it in reams. "It's important to take people back to the ideas of authenticity and accountability," says Willoughby. "If the Maasai don't have these attributes, they die." At times it does seem their way of life is hanging on a knife edge, with the incessant cycle of droughts, floods and predators; not to mention the encroaching modern world.

So how have the tribes continued to succeed and prosper for so many centuries? Howe thinks he has the answer: "Humility, authenticity and transparency; willingness to pass down knowledge; insistence on leading by example; the fact they are all working towards a common goal; and an ability to trust, show respect and dish out responsibil-ity to the younger tribe members."

Tumate says juniors are invited to attend elders' meetings from a very young age. Here they discover how to determine the health of a cow and predict changes in the weather. Tumate was let out on his own as a youngster to graze the cattle. "This is how I got to know my territory," he says. "Young people should not be prevented from progressing. It has built me in many ways." Another leadership lesson perhaps? Howe says: "While the Maasai people haven't had the education that a Harvard Business School lecturer has, they have great wisdom." He believes if leaders give junior staff greater responsibility, much like Maasai leaders allow their people, they will learn much faster.

Kelian Ololpirikany, elder of the Olngaenet village we visited, says he commands respect by maintaining an atmosphere of transparency, leading by example and being inclusive. "My people respect me because I don't lie to them. I know how to talk to them,' he says. "We get everyone together when we want to communicate something." In contrast, a recent Towers Perrin study shows 72% of the global workforce does not believe senior management communicates openly with staff.

There are other similarities between Macleod and Brady's recommendations for engagement, and the way the Maasai people behave. The management experts say: "Looking after yourself matters because you can engage others more effectively. In maintaining your drive and purpose you are topping up the drive and purpose of the whole organisation." Remarkably, this was the elder's answer when asked what the most important thing to the continuation of his community was: "The number one thing is that I am alive and happy, with a good heart," he says. All without reading a single management book.

"The best way to bring communication alive is by telling stories that illustrate desired behaviours," according to Macleod and Brady. Imagine a workforce that sits down at the end of the working day and recounts stories to each other, as these tribes people do. They see it as an excellent way to educate the youngsters. Our team found itself doing something similar, around nightly campfires, discussing the day's events - such as the young man who had fought off a leopard attacking his cow. Willoughby says this is the ultimate HR lesson. The boy was so dedicated to his job, and knew his responsibility so clearly, that he was willing to risk his life. And he had the wounds to prove it.

Willoughby is not suggesting UK employees should pick fights with man-eating cats. But he is pointing out the value of a person knowing their job responsibilities. All these practical examples are backed up by the course's theory work. As Howe says: "It would just be an observational programme without it." Our first exercise was life journey mapping, which helped the group relax and get to know each other. Then came another form of map-drawing, based on a critical rule of Warrior School: know your environment. This entails identifying the elements most important to a business: suppliers, employees, customers. It demands the identification of foes: competitors; lack of engagement; churn. Delegates were asked to draw maps using a method called territory-mapping - an idea inspired by people who know their environment intimately: the Maasai. Howe realised this method's worth when he noticed employees from the same team within an organisation would often draw entirely different maps to each other: "It's often a huge revelation to them that they all see things so differently." And this goes back to his point that most employees within a business are not working towards a common goal.

In further discussions we are encouraged to think of customers in terms of cows and goats. The Maasai treasure both, but cows are worth more and held in higher esteem. What follows on is a 'customer journey mapping' exercise. This teaches individuals to think about their business's USP; why their customers buy into it; and how they are perceived by their customers.

This is all very well, but won't numerous trips to the Mara ruin the very majesty Howe and Willoughby treasure. Howe does not think so. "I don't want to change the Maasai way of life," he says, adamantly. "And I certainly don't want to turn them into management consultants." Howe refuses to run more than a few trips a year for this very reason. He also plans to run future programmes where delegates spend one week learning and one week giving more community-based help.

For some HR departments, persuading the CEO to send staff to Kenya may seem like an impossible task. But this course can offer things most others cannot: real employee engagement, loyalty, lessons in leadership (this writer should know). It may even deliver an employee or two who is full of the gumption and ambition to be the next great leader of the organisation.

THE DELEGATES PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

Fred McCrindle, associate director, Tenon Public Services

Before: I'm here to reflect on leadership skills and am looking forward to seeing them in a different context. I have no idea what to expect. The Maasai's life is so abstract, I'm wondering if it can really translate into the workplace. I don't think the experience will change me, but I may be enlightened.

After: It has reinforced my thinking. Territory-mapping came in handy when we were business planning. I used the example of the Maasai when we were discussing which markets we should look into. The experience has also made me look at how I allocate time. The Maasai has to make sure water is collected and the sheep and goats are out by a certain time each day. One of the most memorable moments was seeing a little boy carrying a lamb so protectively. When he saw us, there was no way he was going to let it go - aged two he already had a strong work ethic.

GUY MILLER, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, THE KARDIA PARTNERSHIP

Before: I'm here to test my new business hypothesis. I'm hoping I'll gain some interesting insights into what really matters and I believe the real learning will come from the debate and discussion we have. I think this trip could change me. I want my viewpoints to be challenged.

After: It was transformational. It gives people the opportunity to undergo self-exploration. It sent me in a direction, and the mentoring I got from Fred McCrindle and Chris Howe helped enormously. The Massai's level of humility and simplicity in life reminds me that my firm is on the right track. The customer-mapping exercise has formed the bedrock of my thinking when I'm telling people what we do. I'll always remember the boy who fought off the leopard. He demonstrated such accountability. He reacted as if to say: 'It's not a big deal, guys.' That was shocking and an eye-opener.

ROB BERTING, DIRECTOR, MRB INFINITE

Before: I hope I will be able to transfer the learning into my own life. I'm open to new experiences. I don't think it will change me, but it may reaffirm my values. Your experience with other cultures gives you great management skills. Management training without examples people can feel and breathe are useless.

After: It's nice to learn from other cultures and transfer it to daily behaviour in the western world. I have certainly implemented some of what I learned in the workplace. My wife has noticed differences in my behaviour and has said I am calmer than before. My most memorable moment was seeing an intelligent person like Tumate struggling with the idea that the world wasn't flat. This showed me not to judge people. Just because our truths are different from other people's doesn't mean ours are better. They're just based on other things.

DELEGATES' LEADERSHIP INSIGHTS:

Good leaders try to impart their own views, ensuring that others see what they do and follow their example. It's about understanding. It's not 'do as I say', but 'do as I do, only better' Fred McCrindle

Leadership is about answering cries for help, giving yourself and being in service to others. It's about doing the things you say you will do Guy Miller

It's about being an example to others by showing your experience and knowledge with authentic behaviour. Good leaders are humble yet self-confident Rob Berting

OUTSIDER'S VERDICT - ANDREW MAYO, president of the Human Resources Society

Discovery learning is a new and positive trend, and its principles are good as long as the course is focused. Going somewhere completely different is very worthwhile, and I think most people would have a very meaningful personal experience, but I'd have to ask: 'How much is transferable in the workplace?' It's very questionable, but this is true of a lot of leadership training. The actual benefits to the organisation can be fluffy and hard to see. Going to the Maasai Mara won't affect employee engagement - it may even make an individual more dissatisfied with their job. But it may make staff feel more loyal, which is a different thing. And it's good to invest in the personal development of an employee, as part of their psychological contract.

Further comments from Kelian Ololpirikany, elder of the Olngaenet Village


How do you gain respect from your people?
They respect me because I don't lie to them. I know how to talk to them. I've raised my children inside this culture so they have that respect. I have also built my livestock, so I have something to offer people when they get into trouble.


How do you lead your people?
It's about telling them the truth all the time. We call everybody together when we want to communicate something. But we only do this when we have cause to. And aggression will only make people run away. Oh, and don't I drink alcohol!


How often do the elders meet, and what do they talk about?
When there's a ceremony, like a wedding, we meet to discuss what steps to take. If there's an issue that affects all villages, we meet first then communicate the message to everyone. The elders have more experience of drought and rain, so if one of us suspects there will be bad weather we'll meet and then communicate the message to the shepherd. If there's a fight or an argument the elders meet to discuss the circumstances that led to the fight, and decide on an appropriate punishment that suits both sides. Mothers of the youngsters involved attend too.


What do you feel about new technologies that come along?
Things are changing but we've maintained respect from wives and husbands, and children and elders. We do welcome mobile phones. When I'm in Nairobi selling cows I am able to hear the news. So if it's anything to do with you, well done!


What about television?
We'd rather it be in Nairobi. We can go there to watch it.


What's the most important thing to your village?
The number one thing for the continuation of our village is that I am alive and happy, with a good heart, and that I don't hate anyone. Respect for one another is also important. Once people have this, other things will follow - they can live with both riches and poverty.


What's the biggest threat you face?
The fact that some of our people are not strictly sticking to cultural practices.


What do you expect for the future of the village?
I see the future of my village as being as straight as this. (He holds up his staff and points it). This is because I am in charge.


What do you expect from your people?
I want to see future generations living the way I am living now, with my family. That respect should be handed down as it is now. In the village we must be bonded, and communicate and agree things at the same level.


What is the furthest you have travelled from your village?
I have been to Mombassa for one to two weeks. When I go away I put on trousers and adopt their culture. And when I get back my people still respect me.


Who leads while you are away?
My first wife, plus my first-born son. But I warn them that I don't want to see changes when I return.


Do you worry while you are away?
I'm not very confident that somebody else can do it the way I like it to be done. The first thing I do when I return is find out if there have been any new things or any changes.