Leadership & time: Lessons from the Maasai

John Scherer describes a leadership lesson he learnt while helping build a school in a Maasai village in Kenya.

During a visit to Merrueshi in Kenya I came together with a small group of people to help a Maasai village construct a building for their new school. One morning, the parents of the school children brought their most precious possessions and laid them on the ground under the Acacia Tree to sell to us, in what could best be described as a community fund-raiser. Since money is a relatively new idea for many Maasai, Kakuta, the “Father” of the Merrueshi Community School Project, saw our presence as an opportunity to teach the people that these little pieces of paper would make it possible for their children to continue to go to school.

So around 100 Maasai men and women brought their hand-made bracelets, necklaces, clothing, shields, spears, clubs, and other items for us to buy, with 90% of the money going to the school and 10% for them to keep. Kakuta also asked us to bargain during our purchasing interactions with his people so they could learn about the process. Ironically, bargaining turned out to be harder for us, because we wanted to give them more than they were asking, just to support the school!


In one transaction, I traded my wristwatch, binoculars, a Swiss Army penknife and some Kenyan dollars, for a spear and a shield.

Even though I knew it was for a good cause, letting go of my favourite Triathlon Watch was a little hard. The warrior must have realised this, because after some coaching on how to hold these ancient weapons (over 100 years old), he handed me a beautiful bracelet.

“John this is a Maasai wristwatch! Now you will always know what time it is!” As an Eagle Scout with some wilderness and military experience under my belt, I surmised that was probably going to show me how to stand a toothpick or small twig on the little blue dial and use the shadow made by the sun to tell the time.

His “instructions” took me by surprise. Pointing to the little blue circle, the Warrior smiled and said, “John, it is time to be doing exactly what you are doing now!”

I can’t tell you how powerfully that struck me. Suddenly, I realised something about time that I had known intellectually for many years but never really understood. It was that we walk around with two kinds of time in our consciousness: Chronos (Greek or clock time) and Kairos (Aramaic or natural time).

Our technological Western world is based on - you could even say addicted to - Chronos (clock time) - “It is 4:00 PM, therefore we must ……...”. The less technological cultures use mostly Kairos (natural time) - “What does this moment require from us now?” Before the invention of clocks, people measured the passage of time by natural phenomena: Seasons, weather, the circadian rhythms, temperature, rain etc.

The famous 1965 song by the Birds, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, is a perfect example of Kairos or natural time:

          To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven--
          A time to be born and a time to die,
          A time to plant and a time to uproot,
          A time to kill and a time to heal,
          A time to pull down and a time to build up,
          A time to weep and a time to laugh. . . etc.

Chronos (clock) time comes from the outside in. It is imposed on the natural order, rather than being a part of it.

Kairos (natural) time comes from the inside out. What does this moment “need”, suggest, require or demand. I don’t look outside at a clock or calendar to determine what to do, but inside the moment, inside myself, inside the situation to learn or figure out what to do.

Farmers are people who have to work with both. Inside the house or when taking cattle to market, they use Chronos: “It’s 4:00 PM. We better get to the bank before it closes.” In the fields they use Kairos: “It feels like the right time to plant.”

Parents operate in both worlds, too. Early on there is the decision, “Do I feed my baby by the clock or by when he or she is hungry?” Later on, it might be, “Is it time to talk with my young one about the facts of life.”

Teachers also use them both: “School starts at 9:00 am and finishes at 15:30” (Chronos). And also, “The class really seems to be enthusiastic and working well so I think I will delay moving onto the next subject until after break” (Kairos).

But what about management and Leadership?

Standing there with my new Maasai friend, another thought struck me: perhaps management is mostly about attending to Chronos things, and leadership is attending to Kairos things.

Interestingly, I never saw an adult Massai running and never saw anyone looking anxious or “late.”

Once, when a Maasai woman working beside me on the construction project accidentally dropped a bucket of small stones she had been meticulously picking off the floor, she simply smiled and started picking them all up again. You or I might easily have sworn or at least given out a spontaneous expletive. But she was working with Maasai time, making whatever it is that happens just that: what was happening. She could be at one with what was happening without judgment or blame because she lived inside Kairos, natural time.

As we were packing to leave on the last day in the community, I overheard Kakuta saying to some of the Warriors and the drivers of our Land Rovers, “OK, guys, let’s get going! The airplanes in Nairobi do not run on Maasai time!” For everything there is a season - even for clock time in a Maasai village. . .

What a great lesson for us. As people responsible for managing other people and results - or even just making it through our day, we need to know how to master the clock (Chronos). That’s management. AND, there are moments when we need to know how to look deeply into the situation in front of us and ask another question: What does this moment tell us we need to be doing? That is the essence of leadership.

About the author
John Scherer is a founding member of AcaciaTree, a Not for Profit organisation which aims to create mutually beneficial relationships between leaders seeking profound development and communities in the third world who need support to meet their basic needs.  John can be contacted via his web site at www.scherercenter.com.
AcaciaTree’s UK representative is Chris Henderson, who can be contacted through Leadership Connections  -  www.leadershipconnections.co.uk.