A New Leadership Perspective when Working with Tribes Part 1

Posted: May 24, 2011

By Larry Keown

Oh, how we look to our leaders – those that are visionary, motivate our organizations, and keep our compass pointed in the right direction.  Our list of prominent leaders like John F. Kennedy (putting a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s), Martin Luther King (his “I Have a Dream” speech), Theodore Roosevelt (the conservationist), or Crazy Horse (a warrior and his work on Indian affairs) comes to mind.  Yes, they were important visionaries, motivators, and molded the history of our country to what it has become today.

We tell ourselves that we could never be a leader like those famous people and have a significant impact in Indian country.  Let me build a fire and lighten the darkness of that thought by making two important points.  First, we need to rethink or redefine our perception of what leadership is and how it might apply to Indian country.  Second, any one of us can be a leader and significantly influence how others work and interact with American Indian tribes.  The fact is we need leaders at all levels in our society – not just those on the national or international stage.  When working in Indian country we need a leadership approach similar to, yet different from, what we read or learn in a classroom setting.  Let’s look at these points in detail.

I once interviewed Arthur “Butch” Blazer, the former State Forester from New Mexico and he made a very important point.  He said,

When I say leadership I’m referring more to that cultural understanding of how to effectively interact with tribal leadership.  It’s not something that’s that easy to do.

The “cultural understanding” Mr. Blazer refers to is so critical.  It’s because culture often defines how tribal governments operate, which in turn defines our business and leadership approach.  Only through understanding the culture, and in turn the tribal protocol, can we adjust our approach to effectively interact with American Indian tribes.

In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, (1994, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)  Ronald A. Heifetz, helps us understand how we can redefine leadership.  Heifetz states,

Rather than define leadership either as a position of authority in a social structure or as a personal set of characteristics, we may find it a great deal more useful to define leadership as an activity.  This allows for leadership from multiple positions in a social structure.  A President and a clerk can both lead.  It also allows for the use of a variety of abilities depending on the demands of the culture and situation.

In his definition, Heifetz makes two vital points that are applicable to working in Indian country.  First, leadership is a set of activities or skills that are adjusted to meet cultural situations.  Second, anyone can provide leadership despite his or her standing in an organization.  In other words, Heifetz’s idea of leadership is that it can be done by anyone in an organization and can be adjusted to fit any culture—internally to an organization or externally when dealing with different social cultures such as the American Indian community.

In my next article I will discuss what these activities and skills are and how we can apply them when working in Indian country.