I am in the middle of writing my third course, Courageous and Honest Governing Boards, and I decided to take a couple of hours break and write a blog about tribal governing boards.
I have served on one tribal board or another for the past 20 plus years, and I have worked for boards for 15 plus years. I have many friends from other reservations who were board members or worked for boards on their reservations. I have seen and heard of many types of tribal board members, but the most common type is the one who wants power, who loves power, who uses power without thinking about the consequences, who uses power just because they can, etc.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, (1834-1902) who was a historian and moralist, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Another English politician, William Pitt (also known as the Elder), the Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, said something similar in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770, "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it." (Retrieved from the Phrase Finder Web site: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/288200.html).
Unless a tribal member has a strong moral foundation or there is a system in place to control tribal members who love power, they will misuse their power while on a governing board. Unfortunately, the societal conditions on the reservations makes it very easy for tribal board members to abuse power. This abuse of power is what stops tribal organizations from reaching their potential.
In 1959 two social psychologists, John French and Bertam Raven, conducted a study of power. They divided the concept of power into five separate and distinct forms that they labeled: Coercive, Reward, Legitimate, Referent, and Expert.
Coercive Power - This is the power to force someone to do something against his or her will. It is the most common type of power used by tribal board members. Tribal board members who rely on this type of power often use threats (firings or demotions) in their leadership style. "It is the power of dictators, despots, and bullies." This source of power can often create more problems than it resolves. In many circumstances, it involves abuse (including verbal abuse). Mindtools.com states, "Coercive power can cause unhealthy behavior and dissatisfaction in the workplace."Reward Power -- This power is the ability to give other people what they want, and hence ask them to do things for you in exchange. "This type of power in based on the idea that we as a society are more prone to do things and to do them well when we are getting something out of it." Raises, promotions, and trips are often used as rewards. Unfortunately, tribal boards often give the wrong people rewards. Legitimate Power -- is power that comes from a position such as a policeman, a manager, or a board position (when they are in session). Legitimate power often lasts only as long as a person is in the position. Many tribal members with legitimate power forget that people are obeying the position, not them. They are often shocked when people treat them differently once they lose this power. I once knew a board member who bragged to me how a certain administrator would call and ask for advice all the time. The board member was convinced the administrator was calling because of his knowledge and character. Knowing that was not the case, I said something to the effect, "_________ is just calling you because you are a board member -- no more, no less." The board member vehemently disagreed. The board member did not have to leave the board for the administrator to stop calling. Due to new members coming on board, the "power" shifted, and this board member found out what happens when a person loses power. No one calls them. Referent Power -- This power is often called charisma. A charismatic tribal board member is well liked by those around him/her. This type of power is strong enough that the power-holder is often looked up to as a role model (Raven, 1988). This power is often looked at and admired as a power-holder's charm. Unfortunately, those tribal members with referent (charismatic) power often use it for coercion by excluding individuals from their "circle." Expert Power - is having knowledge and skill that someone else requires. This is the most common form of power and is what makes the world go around. "Leaders who possess this type of power have high intelligence and rely on their ability to perform various organizational tasks and functions." Unfortunately, this type of power is a liability in some tribal organizations. Especially if this power clashes with a board member who has legitimate power but no expert power.
Compare the above concepts of power with our ancestors' concept of power. Here is an except from Joseph M. Marshall III's book, Walking with Grandfather: the Wisdom of Lakota Elders.In the Lakota encampments of old, the biggest and tallest lodge stood in the very center of the encampment. There, the elders met. The oldest men in the village formed the council of elders. There was one basic requirement: Obviously, one had to be old.
Try to imagine the number of years of experience represented by the village council. Depending on the size of the village, this could vary from hundreds to thousands of years. Yet, the council had no authority. As a matter of fact, there really is no word for authority in the Lakota language. So, how did the council of elders fulfill its responsibility?
The council of elders fulfilled its responsibility through the power of the influence of their wisdom.
Various matters of concern and importance were brought to the council - from everyday life issues to matters of war. Every issue was discussed at length, sometimes for several days and nights. At the end, the council didn't issue ultimatums or edicts. They simply informed the people what they thought. That opinion, or opinions, was the basis for action because of the depth of the council's wisdom.
The Lakota consider fortitude, generosity, bravery, and wisdom to be the four greatest virtues. In any discussion or mention of these virtues, wisdom is invariably the last to be named. However intentional or unintentional that may be, it is entirely appropriate because wisdom is not only the greatest of the four greatest, it is also the most difficult to achieve.
Furthermore, wisdom is associated with old age, and that, too, is entirely appropriate because wisdom cannot be had in ten easy lessons. One has to live a long life to gain wisdom, and it is regarded as life's gift by some who finally achieve it. It is, many also realize, a gift they cannot keep to themselves. It must be given back to life.
The dilemma facing tribal governing boards today is how do tribal board members acquire the necessary wisdom to make decisions that will impact administration, teachers, students, and the community without becoming an elder?
French, J. P. R. Jr., and Raven, B. (1960). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander (eds.), Group dynamics (pp. 607-623). New York: Harper and Row.
Raven, B. H. (1988). Social power and compliance in health care. In S. Maes, C. D. Spielberger, P. B. Defares, & I. G. Sarason (Eds.), Topics in health care. London/New York: Wiley.