American Indian Leadership for the Future

This week marked the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth and leadership. In honor of King, Richard B. Williams, President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, looks at the tenets of what makes a great leader from an American Indian perspective.

We have seen a deterioration of leadership ethics and values in America. One need only to look at the economic crisis, fueled by corruption and greed on Wall Street, to understand this. The leaders of today and tomorrow can learn much from Native traditional ways and values. Matthew King, a Lakota traditional leader and perhaps the greatest American Indian philosopher of all time, once said, “Respect is the first law of Indian people.” That single concept is one of the most profound thoughts that promotes a way of living and interacting with all things: respecting animals, the earth, and especially each other. If one centers leadership on that single value, one will be a great leader.  

Respect is at the center of all dealings in Native leadership tradition. There are four other critical leadership values, beginning with Relationships. The Lakota end their prayers with Mitaku Oyasin (all my relatives). Showing respect, the first law and value, helps one build necessary relationships with those one is leading.

The next leadership principle is Responsibility. A leader is responsible for both personal behavior and for making good things happen. A leader does the hard work, the follow-up, and what is asked. A leader tries not to offend others and must not allow others to easily offend him or her. Traditionally, great leaders must have thick skin and allow themselves to be offended seven times before striking back. And when leaders strike back, they must be respectful, responsible, and considerate of relationships.

A great leader is also a great thinker, using Reasoning skills. A leader must listen to the people and use the best analytical skills and natural Indian intellect to guide his or her actions.

Finally, a great leader is generous. Reciprocity is critical to success. As in the past, the greatest leaders give the most. 

Being a leader is not easy. They must embrace these values, have a well-rounded education, be blessed with a good heart, be willing to sacrifice, and most importantly, have the ability to make tough decisions in the best interest of their people without bias, malice, or sentiment. Many past Indian leaders were born with these values and succeeded through difficult times, often by trial and error.

Although mastering these skills is a good starting point for success, they are not enough. We must unite and find ways to mentor future leaders with guidance, direction, sage advice, and training to help them achieve greatness. We do not expect athletes to perform without training and practice, and we should not expect less of our leaders.

Many employees fail to value and support their leaders, while expecting unreciprocated support and value. It’s important to remember that for our leaders to succeed, it takes the support of everyone in their organization, while ensuring that leaders have the training to improve their skills and receive guidance on how to lead in difficult times. And if our leaders fail, we need to continue to invest in ways to help the next generation of leaders succeed.        

Richard B. Williams is president and CEO of the Denver-based American Indian College Fund, the nation’s leading scholarship provider for American Indian students.

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