A different horizon: Native American views on leadership

So much of what we teach, read, and aspire to as leaders is based on a set of premises that we take for granted based on a platform of cultural, historic, political, and social experience.

University of Nebraska Associate Professor Miles Bryant published a 1996 article examining leadership values through a lens of culture. Leading a group of graduate students, Bryant sought to understand how leadership is understood from the varied perspectives from the members of six different Native American tribes. While Native Americans exist within the framework of larger American culture, many tribes retain a tribal culture that is quite separate from the majority one. Native understandings of leadership provide one useful contrast to our usual conceptions of the topic.

The following is certainly not intended as a “right or wrong” checklist of points of view, but rather, as a way to broaden your own journey as a leader. Here are a few examples from Bryant’s analysis.

1. Time. Time is a precious commodity to best-selling management theorists. When a participant notes that only so much time remains for a group to arrive at a solution to a group problem, this behavior is understood as indicative of strong leadership. We are constantly urged to be efficient and “make good use of our time.” Conversely, time as a critical ingredient of action is essentially absent from Native American thinking: things happen when people are ready for them to happen, or are determined by the nature of events.

2. Accountability. In popular mainstream theory, the leader shoulders responsibility for the work and the behavior of others, and is expected to motivate others to do their work. Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk: “The buck stops here.” This definition of a singular role of a leader is not present in Native culture; hierarchy is much more fluid and not essential to success.

3. Individuality. In Western popular culture, individual responsibility–the idea that one person is ultimately responsible for his or her achievement or success–has launched a multitude of self-help books and weekend seminars. In Native American thinking, the opposite is true: accountability is held by the group—by all, to all.

4. Decision-making. In a traditional Native American circle, no one serves as the “hub.” People speak and people listen until the topic has run its course and the need for action becomes known. Contrast this with our usual corporate framework where subordinates direct their attention to the center of the circle (and may not be encouraged to communicate in any other direction), where the leader determines how much discussion will occur and what action will be taken.

5. Promoting one’s image. Much is made in American business of defining one’s own brand and driving how we wish to be perceived by employers, clients, and so on. This is another way that Native American’s definition of leadership provides a profound contrast. A Native American person does not seek to stand out or promote his/her advancement; it is considered inappropriate to manipulate one’s image in self-aggrandizing ways.

6. Roles defined by organizational structure. Think how often we base our understanding of a group, and our role in it, by viewing an organization chart. Yet this definition of titles and function is not critical in Native American thinking, but rather, value is placed on a person who can serve as a “water carrier”—the person who does what needs to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of role or authority.

7. Creating understanding. Consider for a moment the usual role of a teacher or trainer in our society: this person has information or understanding and is responsible for conveying it to the larger group. Native American culture, in a stark contrast, nurtures a value that Bryant calls “non-interference.” This literally means that a person defines trust as a willingness not to interfere in how others construct their understandings. Interference suggests that one party is subordinate to another in terms of establishing an agenda for action; non-interference does not assume a direct and active responsibility for the perspective of another person.

8. Setting goals. Obviously all humans strive to conduct their lives based on overriding values and beliefs, a vision of existence, yes. But to consciously set out to define an outcome at the onset, to develop objectives and tactics to reach it, to assign roles and responsibilities for different deliverables, and so on—in other words, what we typically consider an appropriate strategic planning process—is somewhat contrary to the collectivist leadership style of the Native American culture. Bryant refers to the Native desired process for action as being “decentralized, organic, and intuitive.”

9. Family and relatives. This is one of the most obvious examples of a clash in cultural practice between majority leadership values and Native American culture. Nepotism is generally considered by mainstream American to be unethical and undesirable, yet in Native culture the obligation to promote the interests of your family and kin is one of the first obligations as a leader.

10. Humility and self-depreciation. It is intrinsic in Native Culture not to seek to be the sole spokesperson for the whole, and to apologize for not properly capturing the words of others. In that spirit, know that this is a brief list of considerations, which warrant much deeper study. We encourage you to embark on your own journey of Native American leadership values, including Bryant’s work but certainly through the writings of many others as well.




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