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Leadership Principles of First Nation Societies for the Modern Leader

A diverse group of co-workers
by Andrew O’Keeffe

Since the profession of workplace leadership emerged about 100 years ago, the wisdom of First Nations has been largely ignored. Yet traditional societies had the same fundamental challenge as modern workplaces — people existing together harmoniously and working cooperatively. First Nations have been refining leadership for millennia; they have had time from the dawn of human history to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Inspired initially by conversations with several Maasai elders, I set off to research the depth and breadth of leadership thinking in First Nations societies. My journey took me to meet with First Nations people in Africa, Australia, the Amazon, New Zealand and North America. Their wisdom helps both individual leaders and organisations.  

I have identified 11 shared principles and their practical relevance to workplace leaders. Let’s touch on four today.  

Organising structure

Ancestral people had a consistent approach in organising their population. The core design characteristics are present irrespective of whether the society is a hunter-gatherer society or a league of nations. The approach helps workplace leaders structure their workforce to make work easy — and avoid the dysfunction arising from poor structure. 

If you were to study the organisational structure of 12 randomly selected workplaces, you would find, almost guaranteed, no similarity of design. Sadly, there’s a good chance, that many of the 12 organisations in your study wouldn’t even have design principles guiding the way they structure their workforce. But study 12 ancestral societies, as I have done, and a clear organising principle emerges, shared by them all.  

Traditional societies follow the same blueprint, and the blueprint handles scale. The principle applies irrespective of the way in which the society is organised: whether organised as independent nomadic bands, as independent villages, as independent divisions (clans) or even as nations comprising as many as 25,000 people. Likewise, the principle provides a blueprint for organising small, medium and large workplaces, so that by design we help people get along well and easily produce work. 

The pattern of human societies for organising a population is a small immediate family aggregating with other families to form a band or village. In my travels, I found that this organising principle of families aggregating into a band or village applies universally — across the range of societies on different continents. Even in societies structured to organise thousands of citizens — 25,000 in the case of Mohawk society in North America before colonisation — the two building blocks of family and band (or, in Mohawk society, the longhouse) provide the foundation principle for organising their population.  

Based on this universal design arising from the long timeframe of First Nations’ experience, workplaces can adopt the blueprint to organise their people. To be naturally functional, staff need to be organised into small teams of about seven staff (equivalent to the human universal of family) within a department of a certain size (equivalent to the human universal of band or village). The size of a village or a workplace department is driven by the size of the human brain – we can handle being in a group of up to about 150, but after that number it’s increasingly harder to keep the group together. That’s why traditional societies, even in abundant environments, capped out at about that number. In ancestral societies and in workplaces the system handles scale; the more people means more villages or departments. 

In workplaces, we can of course create much larger departments than about 150 people. But the point from the long experience of First Nations is that departments much beyond 150 people are too large for people to feel a sense of connection and too large for a department leader to keep the group unified. Human nature wins the day, and a large department splits into separate units. Sure, on paper the department can be shown as a single group of say, 250 people and a senior executive might think the department operates as a united unit, but in practice the department will have split. People feel a greater affinity to a subset of the group. Because the fracture has happened informally, the line of the fracture might not suit the best operational efficiencies of the organisation.  

Selecting leaders

As traditional societies become more organisationally complex, great care is taken in selecting the leader. The success rate of traditional societies in choosing leaders sets the benchmark of what’s possible for workplaces.  

Maasai in East Africa are a case in point. A leader of a Maasai division leads a group of significant size number from several hundred to several thousand people. Maasai overwhelmingly love their leader How do they get leadership appointments so right? A large part of the answer is the time they take in selecting the chief. They take about three to four years to choose the leader – and this is in the context that the young person being selected is already well known to the elders and the followers. Similarly in Mohawk society, the clan mother who has the responsibility for leadership selection observes young people for years to assess their character and suitability for leadership roles.   

The implication for workplaces is to take significant time to select a leader, particularly for a senior leadership role. The usual workplace leadership selection method of one or two interviews, reference checks and even a battery of psychological tests doesn’t meet the high standards of First Nations leadership selection.  

Workplaces can get closer to the high benchmark of First Nations by favouring internal candidates. With internal candidates, the senior people have observed the person for probably years and also given the candidates a range of leadership experiences. But there is a systemic bias against internal candidates. With internal people, they are known as a total package – senior people know the person’s strengths as well as any potential interference factors. Unless acknowledged, this  knowledge of the whole person can disadvantage the internal candidate. With external candidates, it’s difficult if not impossible to know them as a whole package. Their potential interference factors remain undetected and therefore ignored. This drives the appointment decision in favour of the external person. Often, we are then surprised to find soon after appointing the external person that they aren’t the perfect person we imagined them to be. They turn out to be human after all.  

In the meantime, we’ve overlooked and demoralised the good internal person who we might even lose from the organisation. 

Checks on leadership power

In ancestral societies, followers have more power and influence than what senior executives give to staff in workplaces. This level of followership-power in First Nation societies provides a significant check on the power of leaders. While First Nations have a high success rate in leadership appointments, there is still an occasional need to counsel or correct cases of poor leadership; the society could not ignore the negative impact of poor leadership on group harmony and the group’s survival. The check on leadership power in First Nations matches the social complexity of the society. For example, in hunter-gatherer bands the option for followers living with an autocrat was to pack up and leave camp. If a large number of people ‘resigned’, the camp would collapse with not enough people gathering or hunting or staying in camp to look after the younger and older members of the camp.  

In the highly organised Mohawk society, the main check on leadership power is the role of the clan mothers. The clan mother is like the chair of the board, and the chief works for her. To assist the clan mother in being a check on leadership power, she is assisted by a provision of the society’s constitution. In the thousand-year-old constitution there is an article that if a chief is not acting according to the high standards of office, they are given up to three warnings. Upon the final warning, the leadership role is taken back by the clan mother. The phrasing of the article in the constitution places the welfare of the people front and centre: ‘If at any time it shall be apparent that a chief of the League has not in mind the welfare of the people…’  

As a check on leadership power in workplaces, the call to action is to treat power in the same way we treat ‘performance’. Most organisations have comprehensive practices helping leaders manage staff performance: setting job goals at the beginning of the year, conducting regular reviews through the year and closing out with end-of-year appraisals and, in many cases, performance ratings. The results usually feed into salary reviews and bonuses. High performance might lead to being included on a ‘high potential’ list. Low performance might lead to a performance improvement plan. ‘Performance’ is a system. We should implement a similarly comprehensive system to monitor power in workplaces — ‘regulating power program’.  

This involves setting high standards of leadership, communicating those standards, educating leaders on good and bad uses of power, conducting surveys of staff, modelling the good leaders and counselling or transferring out of leadership the leaders who misuse power. Of course, performance of staff is easier to implement as it involves people with power assessing people with less power.  

Implementing checks on leaders is less comfortable — leaders holding leaders to account is like the police policing the police. Nevertheless, power is such a vital element of social dynamics that we should ensure it’s a healthy part of our workplace. 

Initiatives for group cohesion

Ancestral communities generate a strong sense of belonging amongst group members. They devote significant time and resources to bind their community and to reduce tension with their neighbours. 

Part and parcel of the dynamics of human groups is the constant contest between social tension and harmony. The dynamic can shift from harmony to conflict in a heartbeat. Within their group, leaders and group members need to constantly work at maintaining harmony — to at least minimise moments of interpersonal tension and hopefully avoid episodes of group dysfunction. For me, the standout feature of what I learned about this aspect of ancestral life was the considerable investment of time, effort and (food) resources First Nation communities devote to the fostering of social cohesion.  

The annual calendar of First Nations societies was largely driven by festivals and trading camps. Aboriginal society had extensive trading networks criss-crossing the continent, radiating from major trading centres. For people in what is now the Western District of Victoria a favourite trading place was a hill called Noorat near today’s Terang. People from Geelong (Djillong), 150 kilometres away, brought the best stones for making axes and a wattle tree gum used as an adhesive for fixing the handles of stone axes and for attaching splinters of flint to spears. People closer to Terang traded sandstone that was useful for grinding greenstone. People from around today’s Dunkeld brought obsidian, a volcanic glass, for scraping and polishing weapons. Mallee saplings for spears were brought from the Wimmera area to the north. Red clay for paint and marine shells were brought from the coast. Trading was accompanied by celebrations, and attendance was compulsory to the members of all invited clans. With hundreds of people attending, trading took place at a time and place when food was in abundant supply. Providing food for this purpose, and for other celebrations, was a significant investment of time, effort and resources. 

It was only through significant bonding initiatives such as festival, trading camps or less significant initiatives such as food sharing, that groups remained largely harmonious. The implication for workplace leaders is that an investment needs to be made to keep a team unified. Workplace leaders at every level need to invest time and money in appropriate activities at their level – at the level of the team, the department, the division and the organisation. This is particularly critical with many workplaces having shifted to hybrid work. Of all the calls on people’s time, first leaders would never sacrifice social cohesion.  

Andrew O'Keefe

About the author

Andrew is an industrial relations specialist having filled senior HR roles with large organsiations including IBM and Cable & Wireless Optus. He is the author of First Leaders – a book driven by an intense curiosity about the timeless wisdom of First Nations leaders. First Leaders shares the leadership fundamentals of First Nation societies and their profound yet practical implications for workplace leaders today!

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