Leadership and Strategy in Old Hawai‘i

Aug 10, 2018

When Americans and others think of a powerful leader, images of physical strength and robustness come to mind. Increasingly, less visible talents are getting recognition, like the ability to empower and inspire others. Professor Kamana Beamer says, in old Hawai'i, one measure of good leadership was the comfort and productivity of those in your care.
Credit Alpha Stock images-CC

Election season is perhaps a good time to ask, What is leadership?  Qualities like strength and charisma come to mind, but in 2013, Forbes magazine offered this definition:  Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports this definition of leadership applied in pre-contact Hawai‘i.

Kamanamaikalani Beamer is an Associate Professor with Richardson School of Law and the School of Hawaiian Knowledge based at Kamakakuokalani at UH Mānoa. His work bridges indigenous resource management, governance and justice, as seen in his 2014 book, No Makou Ka Mana: Liberating the Nation. The book is a mind opening look at kanaka maoli leaders and their times.
Credit Kamana Beamer

Kamanamaikalani Beamer is an Associate Professor with Richardson School of Law and the School of Hawaiian Knowledge based at Kamakakuokalani at UH Mānoa.  He says his work is bringing back indigenous relationships between people and place.   

Beamer:  We’ve learned about the ways our kūpuna thought about leadership and some of the metaphors for leadership are very much rooted in our geography, in our resources, in our places. An example of one of those metaphors is "malu," this idea of shade.

Beamer:  In an older time, leaders were seen as providing shade for their people.  The ways that communities would thrive is when there were leaders in place that empowered them.  That provided better opportunity.  It really was about how do you provide an environment that makes it easier for life to continue.

Beamer:  One of the ways I’ve been thinking about and teaching about this to my students is thinking about activities society was involved in.  We’re all familiar with the game checkers, or chess. Those are powerful games that teach strategy, but they’re all based around consumption, to conquer and to dominate.  Certainly, that teaches some strategies.

Beamer:  The games our kūpuna played were, for instance, konane.  The point of the game, the way that you win is not to consume all the other pieces the way that you actually win, is you make the last move.

Beamer:  You actually don’t take out the opponent’s pieces.  You have to strategically move your pieces. There are  a few empty spaces on the board and you can block your opponent from moving.  The way that you win is to make the last move.

Beamer:  If we think about that in terms of regions, localities, and sustainability, it’s an incredibly powerful strategy.  Imagine living in these islands, what we know is the most physically isolated place in the world, for centuries.  You had to develop skill sets and leadership principals and values that focused around continuity, the next generation.  Developing strategies that allow you to persist.

Beamer's book, No Makou Ka Mana: Liberating the Nation, published in 2014, is a mind-bending account of Hawaiian leaders, and how they thought about stewardship of people and resources.

Beamer:  When our society was thriving and highly functioning here in Hawai‘i prior to 1778, there were more people on every island, other than O‘ahu, than there are today.  Incredibly large population and limited resources.  Rope made out of the forest, tools made out of stone, how can a society like that thrive and survive for centuries?  It is by having really empowered communities that intimately understand their resources.  You  had to develop skill sets and leadership principals and values that focused around continuity.

Asked whether this would have been a strictly top-down society, Beamer contends, given the amount of innovation the society exhibits in terms of agricultural and other practices, input from all parts of the system must have been incorporated. 

Maybe followers were different then, maybe they were better at following?  Beamer contends people of old Hawai‘i used to share a stronger collective identity, in large part based on common endeavors which were focused around the land.  More recently in Hawai‘i, residents have identified with the Aloha Spirit. 

Beamer:  When you get together and you do a collective project for the betterment of your place together, it builds relationships that last. Those kinds of efforts do rebuild that collective identity but sometimes people come from such an individualistic place. 

Beamer:  Even in early society we understood that as a whole, as a collective, you need all of society to thrive  because we’re just a small little place.

A small place with ideas that could benefit the planet.  Kamana Beamer is the son of musician Kapono Beamer, and grandson of cultural treasure, Aunty Nona Beamer.   In addition to duties at UH Manoa, Kamana plays music at a new local co-working space with a mission. We’ll visit Ka Waiwai Collective for ‘awa and ai pono next week.