No Words for Leadership or Love: The Five Practices and the Cabecar of Costa Rica

“I am sorry, Justin. What is this leadership?”  This was the unexpected reply I received when I asked Urbano Chavez, a long-time friend and Cabecar Indian, how his indigenous group might describe exemplary leadership. 

It was the 27th of December 2010 and we were camped under the corrugated roof of a derelict house in the tiny village of Paso Marcos, in the Cartago Province of Costa Rica. Cartago lies in the Central Eastern belt of the country, running from the central mountainous spine toward the Caribbean and the Province of Limon. At the time, I was halfway through a foot and kayak crossing of the country, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea - a journey I’d devised during my three previous expeditions as I searched for different perspectives from which to understand this country I had grown to love. For this adventure, I had put together a team of four people including Urbano and myself, Martin Veregas, a local farmer, and Henrietta Stavely from England. At this time, our team had trekked 104 kilometres through rain and cloud forest, crossing the Talamanca mountains at an altitude of 3,300 metres whilst often staying in Cabecar settlements and hunting camps along the way. 

As the rain beat a thunderous rhythm, I explored with Urbano the values and concepts at the core of the Cabecar, a population of around 20,000 whose culture has remained little changed for 1500 years. Despite knowing Urbano for a decade, I had made assumptions about Cabecar leadership that my friend quickly dispelled. He explained that there was no word for leadership in the Cabecar language, and no word for love either. The word used for both was ‘respect’. This described the relationship between Caciques (chiefs) and their communities, husbands and wives, as well as parents and children alike. The more we chatted, it became clear that there was little, if any, conceptual understanding of leadership and I became even more intrigued. Every spare moment for the rest of the trip Urbano and I discussed the values and structure of the Cabecar. By the end of our journey, I had already arranged to return and live with Urbano’s Jameikari community in order to conduct field research.

Just eight months later, I was met by Urbano and his wife, Jami, at the edge of the Nawari reserve near Siquirres in Cartago Province—an indigenous reserve that contains  thousands of hectares of primary rain and cloud forest, and runs westward from the Pacuare Valley all the way to the Talamanca mountains. Some of the settlements that lie within the reserve are four day’s hard  walking from any vehicle accessible track, so any  movement is restricted to foot, with mule or horse support. Loading my gear onto the horse Urbano and Jami had brought, we were soon striding through the rainforest on the way to the area of the Pacuare Valley in which the Jameikari community live.  We stopped off to greet Doña Silvia, the community Caciqua (chief) and also Urbano’s mother, before climbing up the final hill to Urbano’s home. Soon we were sitting by his palenque[1], discussing the days ahead that were to include my real first-hand introduction to important aspects of Cabecar traditions.

The next day passed quickly as I attended a community gathering before packing the few things I was allowed to take with me for my tribal initiation. In order to understand the fabric of the Cabecar culture, I had asked to experience elements of the initiation that teenage boys complete for a month at a time as part of their transition to manhood. This tradition centres on living in the forest, within clearly defined rules, whilst being guided by a mentor. Urbano would be my mentor for my truncated initiation. He explained that we could bring knives, machetes, a bowl, cups and spoons, along with  head torches, candles, matches, and fishing hooks and line. The only food we could bring was coffee and bananas and I must leave all modern conveniences and pleasures behind, even books. In fact, I had to be given express permission to bring a mosquito net as I had contracted malaria on a previous trip. 

Leaving Urbano’s home the next morning, we hiked to the area of my initiation, occasionally cutting our way through fresh growth and deadfall. Urbano showed me places special to his father and the Jameikari and began to explain the traditions, beliefs and structures that have supported the Cabecar over the centuries. It was during this walk that he introduced me to the core values of Madre Tierra, fuego, agua y ninos (Mother Earth, fire, water, and children). And later on, whenever I asked any Cabecar about the valores of the Cabecar, everyone gave me the same answer, whether child or elder. 

After a couple of hours we arrived in a small clearing by a swampy creek and immediately began to  build our palm frond thatched shelter, before collecting palm hearts, and starting the fire; This would be home for the next three days.

During this time, I was taught to hunt and fish, and to identify edible and medicinal plants and fruits--important technical skills but seen as secondary to understanding the relationship of self and the Cabecar to the forest.  The most essential lessons I learned after each day’s hard hiking around the area when Urbano would teach me about the belief system and narratives that support his people’s view of the world. Through the blackness of night, we sang Cabecar songs to the forest around us and I was strongly encouraged to reflect upon my identity, my relationship with the forest and the ecological web that wound through it and what that relationship might be in the future. Although highly rational and non-spiritual by nature, I found the process deeply affecting and effective in bringing clarity around my motives and values. 

Despite minimal equipment and reliance on the forest for food, our time passed too quickly and soon we were singing the Cerabo (armadillo) song as we walked back toward the part of the valley in which Urbano’s palenque stood. While my mentoring during this brief initiation may have been informal and unstructured, I reached a profound understanding that I believe other forms of inquiry could not have delivered. In fact, just before walking into Urbano’s home clearing, he said, “Justin, you are different now.”  And I was.

The next day, Doña Silvia hosted a large fiesta to celebrate my visit to the Jameikari community and to welcome me to her clan. It was a gentle but lively affair with dustbins full of fermented banana or maize alcohol, called chicha, being consumed. Finally, after some very ragged dancing and singing, virtually every man was asleep around the fire in the large palenque.  Slowly, I walked up the hill by starlight and began the sense-making process by stroking the jaguar tooth I had been presented by Diego, Urbano’s youngest brother to mark my passage into his tribe

The next morning I began my interviews with members of the Jameikari and two neighbouring communities. I began with Doña Silvia who explained that her principle role as Caciqua was to ensure the Cabecar were sustainable by helping them adapt to meet the needs of future generations.

Promoting the Cabecar language was essential to the tribe’s survival and teaching the language in primary school for the last eight years had made a significant contribution. Doña Silvia explained that if the Cabecar remained connected with their culture, they would be in a better position to make strategic decisions beneficial to their tribe in a future Costa Rica. By way of example, she shared the story of the Cabecar of the Peje Valley. When considering whether to accept a government offer to provide electricity within their reserve, the community asked the children and young adults to make the decision as they would be the ones who would be living with the consequences. In the end, they asked for a pylon line to be run to the school but no further, explaining that if they were to treat this resource as infinite then they might treat their environment and its resources in the same way, leading to erosion in the natural web of which they are part. This sense of sustainability and clarity of understanding remains an exceptional example of Inspiring a Shared Vision in practice.

The Cabecar vision is informed by their values and the more I spoke with members of the community, the more compelling these values became. Mother Earth, for example, represents the environment in which the Cabecar operate and the requirement for sustainability. Fire is both security and comfort, while Water is the element that connects all communities and the ecosystem of which they are part. Children are central to all aspects of Cabecar life, making succession planning of paramount importance. 

Every Cabecar I met intuitively Modelled the Way, a discipline that has been shaped by the forest as much as by the tribe itself. And I found a concentrated effort in each community to develop every person within it through individual and group coaching and by encouraging learning through a sense of exploration, adventure, and experimentation—fully embracing Challenging the Process, Enabling Others to Act, and Encouraging the Heart.

After three weeks of being enveloped in the spirit and warmth of the Cabecar people, it became very clear to me that The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® are central to their culture. Indeed, the consistent understanding of the community’s vision and values has been achieved over centuries without the benefit of a written language but, rather, through traditions of storytelling and intuitive coaching. For the Cabecar people, there is no need for the use of terms such as leadership or followership as these behaviours are the responsibility of all Cabecar, not just their Caciques. As Doña Silvia’s daughter, Ruby, explained when asked what the Cabecar look for in their leaders,

“They (caciques) provide care and demonstrate how respect should be shown. Not just within, and between the communities and clans but also to other indigenous (people), Ticos[2], Siboh[3] and the environment. Leaders teach and show but do not dictate.  They create frameworks for learning through experimentation. They encourage children and adults alike to make their own decisions and understand the nature of responsibility but they are always there as the final safety (net) and to dispense wisdom when asked.”

There are no Cabecar words for leadership or love. And there’s a very good reason for that, as these concepts are wholly bound in the collaborative and adaptive precepts that serve as the very foundation of Cabecarship.

Justin Featherstone MC, FRGS, delivers leadership development programmes, leads expeditions to the mountains, rainforests and whitewater rivers of the world and is an occasional academic lecturer, documentary presenter, and public speaker. A former British Army Major, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Iraq in 2004 and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He is an accredited Leadership Practices Inventory® facilitator and has used The Leadership Challenge concepts extensively around the world in practical, developmental, and academic settings. He can be reached at denaliuk@yahoo.co.uk.



[1] Palenque is a traditional thatched hut or structure, often round or oval

[2] Tico is an affectionate nickname for a Hispanic Costa Rican, based on the habit of using diminutive endings to nouns

[3] Siboh is the single creator figure in the Cabecar belief system

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