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Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation by Chad Corntassel Smith

This article was inspired by Chad Corntassel Smith's Cherokee Nation . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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Learn Leadership from the Cherokee

“Perhaps our greatest single weakness as people, organizations and governments is not knowing where we want to go.”

Chad “Corntassel” Smith served as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999 to 2011. Under his leadership, this Oklahoma-based Native American tribe thrived and left the unproductive track it was on. Rather than wanting to rely on the government for assistance, Smith desired the self-determination that had marked the Cherokee tribe in its past.

Firstly, Smith decided to “learn from all I observe,” meaning that he examined the experiences that had shaped his life. Never stop asking questions and realize that every daily occurrence has a lesson behind it. Don’t make the same errors over and over again.

When reorganizing the structure of the Cherokee Nation’s leadership, Smith adopted a Point A to Point B approach. The true test of a leader is whether or not he or she can take an organization to where it wants to be. Smith and his fellow leaders stressed the accountability of one’s actions and chose leaders with vision and inspiration for their people. Seeking feedback from members of the community, Smith determined what tribal values the Cherokee most valued and wished to see in their leaders.

This chief stressed the importance of having a destination for one’s work. He set goals for the Cherokee Nation and determined what methods would allow them to reach these milestones. If an organization simply focuses on being active without having a vision for their future, it will get nowhere.

Before you can reach Point B, you must establish Point A. Determining the present state of your personal life, business’s health or government’s well-being, you can then take a path towards improvement. Having determined that the greatest issue facing Cherokee culture was a sense of entitlement and the adoption of their surrounding culture’s values, Smith knew what had to be done to return the Cherokee Nation to its former greatness.

As you try to reach Point B, you must have a route planned out to successfully get there. The Cherokee Nation adopted the “Declaration of Designed Purpose” to firmly establish the steps needed to reach Point B and to stress the importance of their guiding principles:

  1. “Believe in one another”
  2. “Work together to help one another”
  3. “Live and work in a resourceful way”
  4. “Be responsible for each other”
  5. “Learn from all I observe”
  6. “Live and never give up”

Before beginning your voyage from Point A to Point B, understand that challenges will arise over time. Don’t let the criticism of others dissuade you from pursuing your vision. You should be prepared to make difficult decisions and determine ahead of time what to do about unexpected problems. Chad “Corntassel” Smith took a nation with $150 million assets and multiplied them to $1.2 billion, while generating approximately 6,000 new jobs and restoring the Cherokee Nation’s impressive reputation. To achieve his goals, he learned from life experiences and established goals.


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