The Characteristics of a Leader

This is not a commercial for London Business School or INSEAD.

I was visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya and while we passed through a small Masai village I met with the village elder. A tall young man in his early thirties.
He took me around the village and explained to me how the community lived. Their most valuable items were their live stock and they had a place in the middle of the huts that was made of branches with a very small passage for the cattle to go through.

Cows were kept inside the huts with the Masai itself.
Wild animals could otherwise come and attack the cattle.

I entered one of the huts. There was no window and it was pitch dark inside. I was taken by the hand and lead to a small place that served as the living area where the family would come together to cook and to eat. Food was made on open fire inside the hut so the smell of smoke was intense to say the least.

The elder showed me the spots on his skin where he had put out burning sticks. He also showed me his teeth, or what was left of those and explained to me that he pulled his teeth out.
These somewhat horrific exercises are part of the rituals of the Masai to train the men to withstand pain.

Once back outside some of the other Masai men came and they formed a circle and one man at the time stood in the middle and started to jump two feet at the same time and managed to jump at least high enough to pass his waist line over the heads of those standing around him. The man was of similar hight as his neighbors in the circle. Each of the men took a turn while the others cheered the man jumping.

We concluded our visit at the school in the village. The children were having their break and were playing in the field.
When the elder had shown me the classrooms I asked him if it was alright to wait until the children came back from their break.
I wanted to see a class in action. The elder stepped outside and called the children back to the class.
I felt sorry for the children to have put a sudden end to their break. In a few minutes the classroom was filled with smiling and curious faces staring at me.

The age of the children ran from 3 to 12 years. A second classroom was under construction and once ready the elder children would move to the new classroom but for now they had to share the available room.

On the blackboard different topics were explained for the different age groups. One age group at the time took a turn to answer some of the questions.

The elder asked the older boys to explain to him what the characteristics were of a Leader?
Hands went up and a boy age 9 started:

A leader has to be honest, has to have a goal and must never put his men at risk.

Another boy took a turn and added a few more traits he felt were required to be a true leader like discipline and the need
to understand the strengths and weaknesses of himself and his men.

What I heard from these very young children made me realize how much we can learn from the Masai who have no television, no computer, no internet connection and yet are teaching the fundamentals of leadership to primary school age children.

I wonder how many 9 year olds in Europe or the US will be able to explain without any hesitation what the characteristics of a leader are. Some may not even know that the word leader means…..

At times I ask myself who is better off ?

© Desi Lopez Fafié

3 Responses to “The Characteristics of a Leader”

  1. 1 Jack Yang
    January 22, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Africa is where we have to learn about the natural world, we are now living in the modern world and forgot where we came from and why we are here.
    The modernization is actually making some mistake in new children eduction, we should think more and may be try to educate our future with more cultural pedagogy.

  2. 2 Harry Tetteh
    February 5, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    “Who is better off?” I think this question remains subjective, but it also depends on easy access to information. Medium of access leads to searching and no medium apparently results in brainstorming.

    I recall how glad my mates and I were, when we graduated from Junior High School (ages 14-15years) to Senior High School just because we would now be allowed to use a calculator in class.

  3. 3 Holly Marie Larsen
    February 17, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    As an American, born and raised in the media streamline, I agree that today’s children are not exposed to the same beliefs, values and traditions of yester-years. They do not understand the core of a true leader because they have never been allowed to lead.

    However, I am also from a poor community and family, that in the end helped install the old beliefs of leadership and self-resilience. It goes back to the basic principles of time-invested and up-bringing. If the people (you and I) take the time to make a difference, it will make a difference.

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