In cohesive social groups, travel progressions are often led by dominant or older individuals, but the leadership traits of individuals residing in flexible social systems are poorly known. Giraffe reside in herds characterized by fission– fusion dynamics frequently mediated by kinship. We analyzed 41 years (1971–2012) of longitudinal data collected from a community of Thornicroft’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti) living around South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, to assess the characteristics of herd leaders. Movement of giraffe in a single file progression was not associated with either season or time of day, but progressions were significantly more likely to occur when giraffe traveled in open areas. The oldest female in a herd was significantly more likely to be at the front position than expected, occupying the leadership niche on 79% of observations. We reason that matriarchal leadership in giraffe, as in African elephants, Loxodonta africana, is associated with resource learning. Giraffe societies are constructed on a heretofore unrecognized foundation that integrates relatedness and familiarity with matriarchal leadership in herd movement.