Traditional Leadership: A Source of Inspiration
In 2010, I visited one of the social projects I had set up with my team in Sohum, Ghana. To my pleasant surprise, I was warmly welcomed by the chief of the town. Standing under a shady tree was a man of about 60, dressed in a wide robe, surrounded by seven women. My colleague James Guy and I were solemnly escorted to chairs, while the chief and his counselor took seats opposite us. The spectators around us also found their seats, after which there was a brief silence. Then the chief took the floor.
To my surprise, he did not address us directly, but his counselor. In perfect English, he welcomed us and expressed his gratitude for our contribution to the welfare of the people of the city. The counselor then took the floor and literally repeated the same words as the chief. However, he was not speaking to me, but to my colleague. After his words, the counselor requested my colleague to pass them on to me.
In this way, the same words were repeated three times, with me expected to address my words not directly to the chief, but to my colleague. Then my colleague would tell them to the counselor, who would in turn speak to the chief. As a result, a dialogue of gratitude and our request to extend our piece of land lasted not the planned 20 minutes, but over an hour and a half. Only later did I understand that this was not just a form of politeness, but mainly a way of ensuring that no misunderstanding could occur.
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Time and Pressure in Contrast with Traditional Values
As a busy owner of an international advertising agency, I was used to meeting multiple deadlines under great time pressure. Time was precious in my eyes. However, the chief clearly valued clarity more than time, and perhaps he was right. In retrospect, I am grateful to him for this wise lesson. As I began to delve into how traditional leaders earned and fulfilled their roles, I realized that we in the West have a lot to learn from them.
Traditional leadership is all about clarity, respect, and careful communication. In the Western world, we too often value efficiency and speed more. Traditional leaders understand that building a strong ‘community’ and maintaining harmony takes time and effort.
Instead of making decisions in a hurry, traditional leaders take time to listen to different perspectives. They involve their advisers in important decisions and ensure that all stakeholders are heard. This creates a tremendous sense of commitment and trust within the community.
The Role of Leaders in Indigenous Cultures
In many indigenous cultures, including those in Africa and North America, leaders were usually individuals who earned respect through their wisdom and spiritual insight. They were not necessarily the “strongest” or “most powerful” individuals, but those who could best promote the well-being of their community.
These leaders were often “servants of the people”, charged with the responsibility to serve and lead their community. We call this servant leadership today, but the role and interpretation of traditional leadership go much further. These leaders ensured consensus and collective decision-making. Decisions from above were rarely made. Instead, leaders consulted with other members of the tribe, such as elders, warriors, and sometimes even the whole village, to reach a commonly supported decision.
These wise and spiritual leaders were primarily concerned with the whole. Decisions were made for the good of the whole community, rather than individual needs or desires. I believe this could be an important lesson for many Western leaders, who are often under pressure to achieve short-term successes at the expense of long-term and communal goals.
Leadership and Care for Nature
Another valuable lesson we can learn from traditional leaders is their deep respect for nature. Indigenous leaders felt responsible for the sustainable use of natural resources within their tribes. First and foremost, this meant taking no more than was needed. In addition, the leader’s job was to ensure that no harm was done to nature.
They saw humans as an integral part of a larger ecological system, and in this many Western leaders can take an example. Decisions were made with an eye to the impact on the environment and sustainability was sought for future generations. At a time when environmental awareness and sustainability are finally becoming important again, we can learn a lot from the way indigenous leaders already saw their relationship with nature thousands of years ago.
The Heritage of Traditional Leadership
Traditional leadership offers us valuable insights and lessons that we can apply in our modern society. By embracing clarity, respect, careful communication, servant leadership, and deep respect for nature, we can build a more sustainable future and society.
I believe we should cherish the heritage of traditional leadership and integrate the valuable lessons it teaches us into our modern leadership. In this way, we can bring about positive change and promote a harmonious society, where the well-being of society and nature are at the center.