First Leaders

First Leaders

Leadership Principles of First Nation Societies for the Modern Leader

First Nations people have been refining leadership for millennia. Driven by an intense curiosity, the author Andrew O’Keeffe has investigated this timeless wisdom. His search led him to meet with First Nations people in Africa, Australia, the Amazon, New Zealand and North America. This book is the result of that journey.

First Leaders shares the leadership fundamentals of First Nation societies and their profound yet practical implications for workplace leaders.

First Leaders - Book by Andrew O’Keeffe

About the author

Andrew O’Keeffe’s interest in the human-side of workplaces goes back a long way. As a youngster growing up in the outback mining town of Broken Hill, Australia (Wilyakali country), Andrew was intrigued by the city’s rich industrial relations history. He observed how the cooperative relationship between unions and management brought benefits to the whole community. This interest eventually led him to study industrial relations and economics at The University of Sydney. He started his career in the mining and manufacturing industries and later filled senior HR roles with large organisations including IBM and Cable & Wireless Optus. For the past 15 years, Andrew has run his own consulting and leadership education business, Hardwired Humans, with a focus on helping organisations and individual leaders align their leadership practices with human instincts. For most of his adult life, Andrew lived in Sydney (Wallumettagal and Wangal lands). He now lives near Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales, Australia (Gumbaynggirr country).

About the book

First Nations people of all continents have been refining leadership for millennia. They’ve had from the dawn of human history to figure out what works and what doesn’t. By comparison, the discipline of workplace leadership emerged only about 100 years ago – just a few generations back. First Leaders is the first book devoted to how the wisdom of First Nations leadership can benefit modern leaders. 

Inspired by conversations with several Maasai elders, Andrew O’Keeffe travelled the globe investigating the leadership knowledge of First Nation societies. His search took him to the central desert of Australia to meet Arrernte and Pintupi, through Africa to meet with Kalahari Bushmen, Himba, Maasai and Samburu, to the Amazon to meet Waorani and Kichwa, to New Zealand to meet Māori and North America to meet with Haida and Mohawk.

From his meetings with First Nations people and his focus on the practical application of the wisdom shared with him, Andrew O’Keeffe has identified 11 Principles of First Leadership. The principles provide concrete actions to help both individual leaders and organisations solve their major leadership challenges. 

I felt honoured that Andrew was including Mohawk society in his research. We are proud of what we have to share.
Kimberly Kaniehténhawe Cross
Kahnawà:ke, QC, Canada

The 11 Principles of First Leadership

Workplace leadership only emerged as a discipline in 1911, according to the great organisational scholar Peter Drucker. Regrettably, in developing the theory and practice of good leadership in this new environment, leaders and scholars of the day ignored all that had gone before in the leadership of First Nations. Instead, the founders of workplace leadership decided that they were beginning with a clean slate.

What would the founders of the profession of workplace leadership have found if they had investigated First Nations leadership? That was my purpose in learning about leadership of First Nations societies. Afterall, First Nations have been refining leadership for millennia. They’ve had since the dawn of human history to determine what works and what doesn’t work.

Across the range of societies visited in Africa, Australia, the Amazon, New Zealand and North America, there is a consistency of leadership which I have termed the 11 Principles of First Leadership.

First Leaders describes the principles in detail. The book includes the dialogue of my conversations with people when the elements were shared with me. Because my interest is on the practical implications for workplace leaders, each chapter concludes with recommended actions – for individual leaders and for leadership practices across an organisation.

  1. Organising Structure

    First Nations societies, universally, had a consistent approach in organising their population. The design principle handles scale and applied irrespective of whether the society is or was organised as hunter-gatherer bands of up to around 25 people or a league of nations of 25,000 people.

  2. Nature of Leadership

    The role of the leader in ancestral societies developed as the population grew and the society became more organised. If the nature of leadership didn’t develop, the society couldn’t expand.

  3. Attributes of Leadership

    Across cultures and across continents, there is stunning uniformity of the attributes that qualify a person for leadership. Even in a hereditary system, the person next in line will be banned from leadership if they don’t have the required attributes for the role.

  4. Selecting Leaders

    As 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.

  5. Appointments and Status of Leaders

    When a person is appointed to a leadership role, traditional societies mark the moment with ritual. The ritual signals the obligations of leadership.

  6. Checks on Leadership Power

    Given the problems arising from ineffective leadership or from leaders abusing their power, ancestral societies generally have options to fix poor leadership.

  7. Cultural Clarity

    First Nation societies are clear on the meaning of membership of their society. There is clarity on the extent to which individual desires are to be conceded in favour of group interests.

  8. Individual Identity Through Learning

    Ancestral societies are learning organisations. A key role of the leader – and the elders – is to teach. Teaching helps achieve individual identity within the group and to avoid the anonymity that many people experience in modern organisations.

  9. Gender Equity – To Avoid a Feature of Ancestral Life

    The finding from my research that disturbs me is that in ancestral societies there is widespread gender inequity in favour of men. But in identifying this finding, at least if we know the deep-seated source of gender inequity we can choose to take the tangible actions necessary to fix the problem.

  10. Inter-Group Harmony – To Avoid a Feature of Ancestral Life

    Almost all ancestral societies had hostile relationships with their neighbours. This finding explains why workplaces can quickly tribalise, and helps leaders watch for the first signs of rivalry so they can take swift remedial action before performance is sabotaged.

  11. 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.

While the principles provide a comprehensive blueprint of workplace leadership, there is no requirement to implement the practices in the order in which I have distilled them. They are fluid. Start anywhere and build from there.

My guide into the Amazon, José Aguinda, grew up in a traditional Kichwa community in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Kichwa couple, María Grefa and shaman Bartolo Aguinda. Bartolo told me that one of the four ways a good shaman kept a community together was to help people stay calm when bad things happened.
After talking with the author about social dynamics of Waorani society, Ginto Tega led the author into the Amazon jungle on a hunting exercise with blowpipe. No monkey suffered as a consequence of the demonstration.
11 Leadership Principles

Books by Andrew O’Keeffe

The Boss

The Boss is based on true stories gathered by the author over many years. The book tells a story about the impact of work on the human spirit.

Hardwired Humans

Offices are not our natural habitat. Leadership is easier when you understand the nine instincts that still drive human behaviour.

First Leaders

First Leaders investigates the leadership principles of 12 First Nation societies, and the profound yet practical implications for workplace leaders.
First Leaders both as print or ebook is also available on other platforms.

Resources to Enhance Leadership Impact

William Kinanta Sadera Maasai Mara, Kenya
Every Maasai I know loves their chief.

William Kinanta Sadera

Maasai Mara, Kenya

First Nations people have been refining leadership for millennia. Their timeless wisdom can help workplace leaders solve their major leadership challenges and increase their personal effectiveness.

First Leaders outlines the 11 Principles of First Leadership that are consistent across First Nations societies. To assist leaders in using the book to enhance their leadership, a number of Resources are available below.

The objectives in using First Leaders to explore workplace leadership are to:

  1. Help individual leaders at each level of the organisation enhance their own leadership – in either leadership workshops or in personal reflection.
  2. Assist senior executives reflect on their personal leadership style and impact.
  3. As part of Reconciliation Action Plans, increase the respect we have for First Nation societies by appreciating the depth of their leadership wisdom.

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First Leaders
PO Box 415
Bellingen NSW 2454

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