Updated: Jul 20
In the West, we don’t understand many of the Masai rituals which sometimes seem outdated and other times make us gasp with horror. However, their consequent lifestyle has helped them to survive harsh environmental conditions over hundreds of years with few possessions, except for the character and community strength that is born from these rituals. They have an exemplary ability to live alongside the nature we destroy on a minute-by-minute basis with our self-focused need, greed, and grab practices.
The Masai live with the following values: responsibility, courage, respect, wisdom, humility, honesty, and hope, and when you meet them you will immediately notice how calm and confident they are. The Masai seem to know exactly where they’re going as individuals and as a group, and how they’re going to get there by maintaining a sense of unity and common purpose.
How is that achieved? The Masai community is structured so that everyone plays a meaningful part and leadership is taught from the age of 5 years old with accompanying responsibilities and accountability and an overriding purpose to preserve, not the individual, but the community as a whole, so that each individual is safe and survives.
A 5-year-old child is given a goat or sheep to look after, and later on a small number of livestock to herd. Once on a walk from the community to take the goats to a grassy area to feed with a young protégé, a hyena appeared. The young boy ran after it with a stick, shouting ‘Yaah…yaah’. Hyenas have strong jaws and could easily have torn his pursuer into pieces. The little boy was fearless; he knew that the survival of the people in his village who daily drank goal’s milk was more important than his individual life.
At the age of 15 years of age, youngsters go through a circumcision ritual that increases their influence within the community and their commitment to its protection. The young men become warriors and the young ladies prepare for marriage. The women in the tribe grow up to be responsible for raising children, building the mud and cow dung huts, fetching water and firewood into the village, slaughtering the livestock, and distributing the milk that forms a staple portion of the Masai diet.
The warrior ritual for the young men must be embraced without fear or flinching, otherwise, the young man is thrown onto hot coals and banished for life – a practice designed to root out those Masai without the necessary mental toughness for life as a warrior. He is seen to have disgraced the village because he does not have the courage to protect his community. This event is very unusual as most Masai children learn from an early age how to protect their village.
In the past, a warrior would often spend five to seven years away from his village hunting for wild animals to learn courage and how to fight for the community. Warriors when at home protect the village from predators and rival tribes
A Masai warrior’s standing within the community is signified by three things: spears, feathers, and shields. Spears represent power, feathers represent wealth, and shields represent status.
At about 25 years of age, a warrior may evolve further to marry and become a family man and an elder. On accession to the role of elder, a Masai passes down his spears to a younger warrior – thereby handing over his power.
If you consider the structure of most businesses today shields, spears and feathers are amassed to the most powerful leader as it is considered better to have power than to give it away. The Masai style of leadership however is not for the benefit of the top leaders, but for the well-being of the tribe. Greatness is not about what you take from the tribe: it’s about what you contribute back to it. Asset rewards are not given to individuals; instead rewards come in the form of recognition within the group leading to a deeper reality of belonging to it.
The role of village elders is to maintain customs and resolve any disputes. For the Masai, survival is all about empowering the people beneath you. The whole thing revolves around respect, and you earn respect by performing your designated role in the tribe. They’re very clear about how that whole process works and I think in current businesses the role players are not as clear.
‘Respecting the people below you empowers them, raises them up, and motivates them to perform optimally. Rather than exercising power and energy, elders sit down and talk to solve problems that affect the community. They listen to the voices of those they serve and have the courage to make collaborative decisions.
Research across 57 countries conducted by Arthur Carmazzi, the world leader in cultural organizational evolution shows that hundreds of employees want an ideal work environment where there is trust, support, and fun. They want to have an organizational purpose they have co-created and to be able to make a contribution that is uniquely their own. Employees would like the support and cooperation of colleagues they are in the same boat with, all paddling together towards the same destination, with a cooperative, adaptive effort through the ups and downs of the rapids along the way. It seems that most people in business want what the Masai already have, and it’s not just about the money, it’s a meaningful work experience.