An accountant’s tribes and tribulations

MY QUEST to gain understanding and insight into good leadership began more than ten years ago with the Maasai. At that time, although I had a successful job as a partner in an accountancy firm and a good personal life, I felt my life was lacking focus and direction. I decided it was time to take radical action and signed up for an unusual management training course in the wilds of Africa. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and changed my life.

The Maasai Life Leadership project was set up in 1999 to help managers learn how to survive in hostile business environments by taking them to live among the Maasai people in a remote corner of northern Kenya. It was there I learned a great deal about myself and about corporate management.

After a 24-hour journey by air, road and foot, we arrived at the remote Maasai village where we were staying. I was instantly struck by how calm and confident everyone was. After a while, I began to understand that it was because everyone knew exactly where they were going as an individual and as a group and how they were going to get there. In the tribe, there is a clear structure and definition of roles right through from childhood.

There are three defined groups among Maasai males: children, warriors and elders. Every person within the group knows that their position within the tribe will develop as they earn respect. This helps to ensure that every male or cohort is motivated to work towards the common good of the tribe – something that is often lacking in businesses and organisations in the UK. Women form a completely separate group and are responsible for raising children, building the mud and cow dung huts, and fetching firewood and water for the village. Every single person within the tribe therefore understands and knows exactly what is expected of him or her.

Although the Maasai’s hierarchical and segregated male/female structure is rigid and old-fashioned by today’s standards, there is a lot we can take from their way of life that can be translated into the business environment. Over here, a lot of employees know what their job is but they don’t know how they’re going to get on, earn more respect, and progress. It is apparent to me that, with clearly defined roles, respect and a culture of motivation and improvement, employees feel more affinity with an organisation and have a clearer understanding of where they want to get to. They have a life goal.

Another important lesson I learned from the Maasai was the art of good leadership. Their strong focus on empowerment and mutual respect can be interpreted as enlightened leadership practice. In the tribe, greatness is not what you take from the tribe but what you give back. Rewards are about recognition in the tribe and belonging – they are not about individual achievement. In the tribe, a better leader is one who passes his spears to another, thereby handing over his power. In the UK, it is generally considered better to have spears – or power – than to give them away. For the Maasai, 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 are very clear about how the whole process works, whereas in business I think that we are often not – and it is here that we have a lot to learn.

The time I spent in Africa was life-changing for me. I took away a lot of life lessons in terms of respect, empowerment, focus and clarity, which I put into practice and which paid real dividends in my career. It led me to take on roles that previously I would never have dreamed I could have tackled. I now drive myself a lot harder that anyone else could drive me as a result of my experiences.

I recently took some of my own clients to the Great Wall of China to help them to attain a new clarity about business and personal plans in an environment that was completely different from anything they may have experienced before. We used the trip to strip away all the extraneous “rubbish” that people may have, in order to attain total focus and clarity. There is real inspiration in standing on the Great Wall of China and seeing that incredible view. It just doesn’t work in a hotel room at Heathrow.

Chris Cairns is a partner at Alliotts Accountants

Image: Hector Conesa /

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