A New Leadership Perspective when Working with Tribes Part 2

Posted: May 22, 2011

By Larry Keown

In my previous article I discussed a new approach to leadership when working in Indian country.  It ended with a definition of leadership being a set of activities or skills that are adjusted to meet cultural situations.

The activities and skills that define a new approach to leadership when working in Indian country include many of those we often take for granted in our contemporary business environment yet have a distinctive culture style.  They include how we show respect, communicate, build and maintain relationships, and earn trust.  Each of these activities and skills are grounded in American Indian culture in a way that we must learn and practice to be successful in Indian country.

As an example of how we might adjust to these cultural situations, let’s start with how we show and display respect to a tribe or tribal official.  When we analyze the word respect—we find there are two very important words used to define respect: esteem and deference.  Esteem is “to feel or show admiration and deference toward somebody or something.”  Deference is “putting another person’s interest first” or “submitting to the judgment, opinion, or wishes of another person.”  As we take this a step further, the phrase “in deference to,” means “out of respect or courtesy to somebody or something.”

This leads us to the Platinum Rule that says, “Treat someone the way they wish to be treated, not how we want to be treated.”  If we apply the Platinum Rule to the word “respect,” the first thing we need to recognize is that tribes are sovereign entities – they are independent governments that define their own vision, future, and operational protocols.  Contrary to the contemporary definition of a leader where one provides vision, motivation, and direction, we in the non-Indian community cannot dictate or mandate a vision for a tribe, much less, tell them what they have to do the achieve that vision.  Not respecting sovereignty leads us to being condescending, patronizing, overbearing, and disrespectful to the recognition the American Indian community has fought long and hard for.  We must resist that burning urge to take control when things do not go as we think they should.

The challenges that face us on how we show and display respect to tribes and tribal leaders lean heavily towards honoring the cultural protocols they wish to operate under.  The list of protocols is long but some questions you might ask yourself include:  Are we really listening and hearing what tribal leaders have to say?  Do we know when and how to respond?  Do we ask questions rather than make firm statements about what might be best for them?  Are we willing to honor the spiritual protocols they might want to include?  Are we open to being tested?  Are we willing to shed our bureaucratic image?  Have we put aside our misperceptions and stereotypes and learned the facts about American Indians?  Do we understand the implications of body language and humor?  Are we willing to put in the time to build and nurture a relationship?  Are we willing to work on a timeframe that might be different from what you consider as typical?  Are we comfortable operating in a culturally different environment?

To sum it up, Eddie Tullis, past chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama says,

Those people that come along and say, “I’ve got a million dollars to build an airport,” and I say, “Well the first thing, does it have to be on a reservation?” And they say, “Oh yeah, it has to be on a reservation.”  Well you don’t need to spend … time with me if you’re telling me [it has] to be on a reservation. I don’t care how much money you have because I [don’t have a] reservation to put it on. There’s no use in me taking up my time and my staff’s time trying to decide … If we could make those runways in a circle we might fit it on here. You’ve got to understand your customer and you’ve got to understand the reservation and all before you really start doing that … A lot of that is getting to know your customer, getting to establish that relationship.

So, develop these leadership activities and skills, get to know your customer, and educate yourself on the protocols that tribes wish to employ – basically treat them the way they wish to be treated!

To learn more about developing a new leadership perspective order your copy of  “Working In Indian Country”.