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Educating Indian Country’s Future Leaders

Newly-elected and aspiring tribal leaders recently gathered on the Tohono O’odham Reservation for a seminar on leadership.
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The most often-asked question about the element of leadership is, “Are leaders born or made?”

And the most frequent answer is, “a little bit of both.”

If you’re a believer in the power of politics, you may choose to agree with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s contention that, “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error and experience. Successful leaders know how to define their mission, convey it to their subordinates and ensure they have the right tools and training to get the job done.”

Dr. Ronald Riggio, writing on Cutting-Edge Leadership in Psychology Today, answers differently: “Leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made. To expect that a person would be born with all the tools needed to lead just doesn’t make sense. There is some ‘raw material’ or inborn characteristics that predispose people to become leaders, but they need to be developed.”

Attempting to answer the born-or-made question, Forbes magazine writer Erika Andersen notes that while some believe there are people who come into this world with a natural capacity to lead, “What I’ve learned is that leadership capability falls along a bell curve. Some people are born leaders who start out good and tend to get better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve who, no matter how hard they try, just aren’t going to be good leaders because they don’t have the innate wiring. The big middle of the curve is where most of us live, and that’s where the real potential for ‘made’ leaders lies. Most who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become good, even great, leaders.”

To grapple with the concept of good leaders and how to become one, 100 attendees—newly-elected and aspiring leaders from Native Nations—gathered in Tucson, Arizona November 6-7 for a specifically-developed Executive Education Seminar titled, Emerging Leaders. Sponsored by the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, a dozen sessions on key governance topics were aimed at preparing participants to begin building personal blueprints for leadership success.

Without quantifying attendees existent capabilities, latent or otherwise, the Emerging Leaders seminar gathered neophytes and veterans alike to participate in a whirlwind tour of the nation-building revolution. “Not a lot of information exists about Indian government, so we’re here to connect the dots of some things that may not be well-known,” said Joan Timesche (Hopi), Executive Director of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy.

Cultural sociologist, Indian economic developer, and Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, Dr. Stephen Cornell kicked off the conversation with a challenge to the Native leaders of tomorrow.

“You carry the burden of what happens next,” he said. “This is the dawn of a new day as we’ve forgotten how to govern over years and years of not being allowed to. Today’s tribal leadership faces more power now than they’ve had over the last century and a half. But that new power means new leadership tasks on how to achieve what you want, not just what somebody else says you should want.”

Delegates from various tribes wrestled with an Indian country environment in flux – from the 1950-1980 battles over sovereign rights to the 1990-2013 challenges of governance. “You may still need to negotiate and litigate even as you shift to making and implementing decisions,” Cornell said.

Following an opening prayer and song from a member of the host tribe Tohono O’odham Nation, a full agenda got underway dealing with the larger picture challenge of newly-won rights of governance as part of nation building to specific problem areas like finances and tribal law.

“The keys to nation-building success include practical sovereignty, genuine self-rule,” said NNI’s Ian Record. “The status quo standard approach used for years where success depends on the next grant to feed the beast is limited strategy that is being seen less. It is being replaced by an indigenous nation approach that puts the development agenda and the necessary resources in Indian hands, pushing the envelope of governance so tribes are the final arbiters and their decisions are married to consequences.”

Montana Attorney Eldena Bear Don’t Walk, a ground-breaker herself as the first woman ever to serve as Chief Justice of the Crow tribe, cautioned that change with one foot in the contemporary world and the other in the traditional, requires caution and foresight. “In being a leader, you need to keep the long-term vision in mind. People don’t generally look far enough ahead, beyond seven generations, it’s about decisions that will have an impact in perpetuity.”

Attendee Eric Descheenie, an up-and-coming leader currently serving as Navajo County Tribal Governmental Relations Director, said, “I’m here to learn how to inspire our people to achieve their best in whatever they do. Ultimately it’s the people who drive this thing we call government and not the other way around, and I want to get people communicating—not just making noise—to move us all toward a higher standard of living.”