Leadership Begins With Humility

Leadership humility Cherokee Nation

I’m honoured to host this guest piece by former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad “Corntassel” Smith.

Forty years ago, when I was a college sophomore attending the University of Tennessee, I was walking down Neyland Stadium Drive with a fellow student. We passed a new building and he said, “There is our new swimming natatorium.” I said “That’s nice.” He said, “We only have had a swimming team four years.” I said, “Good.” Then he said. “They are nationally ranked.” I said, “Wow! That is something.”

And then, he said, “The coach had never coached swimming before.” Now he had my attention. I asked, “How did he do that?” He replied, “The coach had a simple philosophy, if you want a football team you get some horses, if you want a swim team you get some fishes.”

It dawned on me that the coach was outstanding in recruiting student athletes with talent, and excellent assistant coaches who knew how to teach techniques. The coach knew one of his most important jobs was to recruit and develop leaders.

My favorite saying is, “Adversity creates opportunity”. For the Cherokee Nation and most organizations and governments, the greatest adversity is lack of leadership and the greatest opportunity, of course, is to develop leadership, in other words, to get some “horses and fishes.”

Leadership defined

The dictionary defines “lead” as “to take or conduct on the way”. Therefore, leadership is the ability to take or conduct on the way; that means you must start somewhere and go somewhere. Using mathematical language, Point A is where you start and Point B is where you want to go. Leadership is the ability to take yourself and others from Point A to Point B.

It also drives and motivates us to begin and complete a journey. We can prepare ourselves for the leadership journey by learning skills to navigate the way, understanding challenges, and overcoming adversities. Everyone is a leader.

Leadership starts with Point A – Humility

We must know where we are, before we can find the path to where we want to go. We must establish Point A, a beginning, to navigate to Point B, an end. Just like getting directions from our GPS in the car or a smartphone, you must enter a “starting” and an “ending” point.

For individuals, determining Point A is a humbling, self-assessment designed to learn their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges. Determining Point A includes understanding your relationship to place, time, economics, spirituality, family, hometown, community, and friends, etc.

It is humbling to see yourself and your abilities in relation to the world, history and the future. This exercise in humility is the foundation for building confidence.

In Cherokee thought, confidence and humility are closely connected. The Cherokee word ᎤᏓᏙᎯᏳᎯ (udadohiyuhi) means confident: “Have confidence in yourself and do not doubt your abilities, but temper all with humility”.

A vivid example of understanding Point A humility is to open the Google Earth map on your computer and zoom back from your home. You quickly see where your home is located among the Earth’s continents. The value of the map is not to show how small you are, but how you relate to the earth.

For institutions, determining Point A is not much different; it is making an assessment and taking an inventory of its strengths and weaknesses, including its competitive advantages and intelligence, and then determining the nature of its market and its market position.

The adage that “If you don’t know where you have been – how do you know where you are going?” is profound. Determining Point A is not only a snapshot of where you and/or your organization are at a moment in time; it is also the recognition of where you have been and what experience, knowledge, education and intelligence you carry with you.

It was critical for the Cherokee Nation government to understand and know its history to determine where it was as a Nation, and where it wanted to go. A major starting point for the Cherokee Nation was when it signed its first treaty with Great Britain in 1721, some 55 years before the United States even existed.

That signified that the Cherokee Nation was a government and belonged in the world community of nations. The signing of that treaty reinforced its ability to understand challenges or adversity created by other governments, and its opportunity to build a great Nation.

Leadership drives to Point B – Vision

After you have determined where you are, then you must determine where your Point B is; where do you want to go? What is the product, the goal, the designed purpose, the destination of your life, organization or efforts?

Vision is looking into the future or off into the distance for better circumstances. If we cannot articulate our vision in ten words or less, then we lack clarity in what we want; it cannot be branded, and people cannot relate to it.

For example, what should be the vision for the Cherokee society? I often ask groups of Cherokee speakers, usually elders, how they would interpret a concept in Cherokee thought. Once I asked them, “How would you describe a person in their late twenties or early thirties that was successful?”

Success was suggested as having a meaningful job, starting a loving family, taking care of their parents, being a good neighbor, taking responsibility, enjoying themselves and being a patriot of the Cherokee Nation. They concluded that in the Cherokee language, you would describe that person as “mature.”

Understanding Point A – where we begin, results in humility, perspective and confidence from which we can start a journey, build an institution, achieve a dream and reach Point B – our vision, product, purpose or destination.

For many people and institutions, Point B – or where they want to go can be described as maturing. Are you prepared to recruit and develop some horses and fishes? Where will you lead yourself and/or your organization?

Chad Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999 to 2011, grew its assets from $150 million to $1.2 billion, increased business profits 2,000 percent, improved healthcare services from $18 million to $310 million, created 6,000 jobs, and dramatically advanced its education, language, and cultural preservation programs.

He is also the author of “Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation”, as well as a public speaker and leadership and organizational design consultant. To learn more about Chad, visit his website at chadsmith.com.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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