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ACCORDING TO A FEW EXPERTS, leadership is defined as, “the ability to get work done with and through others while winning their respect, confidence, loyalty, and willing cooperation” (Greer and Pkunkett, 2007:261). That definition implies quite a broad set of traits. A number of you might have all of these, and at the same time, not really grasp that leadership is part of your heritage, it’s in your veins.
Leadership is a consequence of complex interactions, whether psychological or social; and we all know history has created complex socio-psychological situations for Native People. The notion that leaders possess a specific set of traits traverses cultures. While all cultures do not share a universal idea of what every leader looks like, or acts like, there is a set of universal traits that all leaders do have. Let’s look at 5 of them, here.
Leaders are trustworthy. Leaders uphold a reputation for integrity, are less likely to be engaged in risky ventures, cheat, or conduct affairs that could place others in danger. Being trustworthy, that people trust your judgment is the first trait of a leader.
Secondly, Leaders act out of concern for others. Leaders are not loners, they are inherently part of a social group. So it is the people of the group who agree on leadership. It’s one thing to declare oneself a leader, and another when people treat you as one. If you are greedy, or otherwise unethical, people will see that. Leaders keep the greatest good in mind, rarely, if ever acting in self-interest. Think of the 19th Century leader, Chief Joseph. Chief Joseph thought it best that his small tribe survive, instead of continually sending the dwindling men and boys to die fighting against the technologically advanced settlers ever moving westward into Nez Pierce country. Fighting was senseless by the late-1800’s. The millions of settlers weren’t going anywhere. Chief Joseph recognized that the numbers were clearly not on his side and so he acted on behalf of his people: advocating for a reserve. Acting out of concern for others, is primary, and must be in the heart of a leader.
Thirdly, while leaders must be intelligent, not every intelligent person has the ability to explain things clearly . Thus, leaders must not only know the important issues at play, but need to also have the ability to clearly explain them to others. It’s through explaining and clarifying issues that consensus is developed. Consensus equals followers or disciples, and building a consensus is derived from the ability to explain important things clearly.
Leaders have to possess courage to proclaim a particular course of action. What’s the point shouting that there is such-and-such problem, trying to get people to listen without also providing the solution? Solutions don’t fall from the sky. Leaders will have taken the time to ponder about consequences. It will be from those variables that leaders must decide the most appropriate course of action. Otherwise, what you have is a clairvoyant. A clairvoyant is not concerned with outcomes, they simply report what’s going to happen next!
Finally, a leader will be scrutinized when things get tough. When water and food are scarce, or when buildings are burned down, the leader must have already developed in herself the determination and will to persist a course of action, but remain flexible enough to know when a change of direction is needed. Changing course can be both psychologically and socially difficult. Consider how Chief Joseph must have felt when he desired true freedom for his people, that he desired to fight on, but that his people were few and hungry. He had to inform his people – many of whom already knew – that it was in their best interest to settle, so that the Nez Pierce would live on- albeit on a reserve.
For sure, leadership is a social necessity. Leadership takes on unique shapes provided by the cultural and situational settings. For the Indigenous of America, leadership is part of their heritage. However, in movies and other popular media, Indigenous Americans are romanticized as as mostly Sioux-Indian males – sitting around a nighttime fire (inside a teepee) bickering about issues, perhaps passing a pipe while a drum beats into the night. On the contrary, most American Indigenous leadership hed councils in vastly different places. The Caddo Tribal leadership met in grass structures; and the Iroquois, in longhouses.
Notably, the Iroquois, or “People of the Longhouses”, (Kannonsionni ) are known broadly as the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee).The Six Nations include the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Oneida, the Mohawk, and Onandaga – and later, the Tuscarora. Today, this Six Nation Council is known as the Iroquois League. Each of the Six Nations have representative leadership who are selected by the clan mothers of each Nation. These 56 chieftain leaders (Hoyenah) make up The Great Iroquois Council. This ancient council is nearly 600-years old. According to the best contemporary archaeological evidence it is stated to have began around the year 1450.
Throughout half a millennia we can trust that the clan mothers made sure that their selections to the Great Council possessed the 5 traits discussed here and that historically, there were undoubtedly difficult decisions made by these elected Hoyenah (chiefs). More difficult still, was that courses of action taken by the council had to be unanimous. Imagine the kind of leaders it takes to create unanimity? That’s the heritage in your veins. That’s the kind of leader you are.
1. Nez Pierce Chief, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_Joseph
2. “In 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest to settle on the reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. Instead, Joseph and others were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation far from both their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and the rest of their people in Idaho,” ibid.
4. “The Grand Council of the Iroquois League is an assembly of 56 Hoyenah (chiefs) or Sachems, a number that has never changed. Today, the seats on the Council are distributed among the Six Nations as follows: 14 Onondaga, 10 Cayuga, 9 Oneida, 9 Mohawk, 8 Seneca, 6 Tuscarora”, ibid.
5. Dean Snow states, “the archaeological evidence does not support a date earlier than 1450,” ibid.
Greer, Charles, R. and W. Richard Plunkett. (2007). Supervisory Management, 11th Ed. Pearson/Prentice. Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 07458
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