November 2008 Archives

Don't be a Do-gooder

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Today, Erich and I were talking about why so many people who get elected to a board or appointed to a commission don't stick it out for their full term. Often, they quit within months. I said,

"You see people come in with a lot of passion. They are going to do good. Often these are young people, or, sometimes, people who have been alcoholics and they are young in terms of involvement in their community. They come in with the best of intentions, with ideas and enthusiasm. Then, four months later, they are out. Then, there are other people, like Willie, like Evelyn, like Lorraine, who you see on their reservations pushing for what they believe in, whether it is disability rights or early childhood education or preserving the Dakota language. I was thinking about the difference - "

Erich didn't even let me finish. He said,

"I'll tell you what the difference is, the really big difference. Those people you mentioned are leaders. The others, they get on a board to try to get some power, their own way, get even with people, and when they find that the little bit of power they have doesn't force everyone to do what they want all the time, they quit."

I agreed with him that there might be some of that, but thinking about all of the people I have met on different reservations in the past 20 years, all of the meetings I have attended, I can recall a lot of people who came in with good intentions and wanted to reduce alcohol use among youth, or have preschool programs that would prepare children for kindergarten or improve the opportunities for people with disabilities. Yet, a lot of those people didn't last a year from that first meeting where they showed up full of ideas and energy. It seemed like they just got beat down.

sun.gifErich insisted again,

"They weren't leaders."

And then the light went on and I began thinking about what we really mean by a leader. What's the difference between those people who come to a few meetings, tell everyone how everything should be run, help with a bake sale or knocking on doors before an election and then just disappear when things don't immediately change. As Erich says, they give up at the sign of the first roadblock.

What makes one person a leader and another just a "do-gooder"?

  I'm always confused when people refer to me as a leader. Erich, yeah, I can see it. He doesn't mind going to meet with senators on Capitol Hill and gives a professional response to old people who stand up and holler at him at school board meetings. Me, I much prefer meeting with the technical people than senators, and would a whole lot rather be at a keyboard in a meeting. On occasion, I have told old people who hollered at me,

"You know, I would get upset, but you're old and you're going to die soon and I will still be here trying to make things better the best I know how."

When I thought about it, the difference seems to boil down to all of those Dakota values that Erich writes about so much. (If you are interested, a good introduction is on the tribal leaders wiki )

A big one is perseverance/ fortitude. Real leaders weather the tests of time. In every cause, whether it is language preservation, alcoholism treatment, stopping water pollution or a thousand other things, there are going to be people who are opposed to you. Some of them may actually have a reason. They may believe that more funds should be spent on prevention of alcoholism instead of treatment. They may really believe that prevention activities don't work and you are wasting the tribe's money on basketball and arts and crafts programs just so you can give your relatives jobs. Or, they may just be mean-spirited people who want to pull down someone like you who is trying to start a program that might make a difference, the "Indian crab mentality" that we were discussing on the Tribal Leaders Council .

It's not so hard to start a program, to be in at the beginning of a new board. Everyone is congratulating you, people are being nice to you, hoping to get favors down the road. Then the work sets in. The work that takes strength - fortitude, that requires you to go to a meeting in the evening after you worked all day, to get up on Saturday and drive through the snow because your program is having a booth at the health fair being held in the high school and it is your turn to show up. You have to have the the fortitude to do more than most people, to be there earlier, to stay later, to get on the Internet and find information about funding you could get, new rules that apply to your program.

Not only do you have to do work, but you have to do it against obstacles. You get to the high school and it is closed because the person in charge of the health fair forgot, or the custodian who was supposed to open the building overslept. The tribal council doesn't vote you all of the funding you really feel you need.

In small communities, there is always jealousy. There is probably jealousy everywhere but in a smaller place, it can get more personal. People can start to say things behind your back like,

"Don't you think that's pretty funny Susie is up here talking about alcohol treatment when she used to be the biggest boozer on the reservation? I remember the time that she .... "


"That Susie has a lot of nerve getting up there and talking about how we need to do so much for the children. I'm always seeing her son in trouble at school. He's got caught smoking cigarettes, is failing two or three subjects. Maybe she ought to quit going to these meetings and look after her own family."

Do they think that perhaps the reason that you are supporting treatment so much is that it was there when you needed it and you benefited? Has it occurred to these people that the reason you are so involved with the school is that you want it to meet the needs of your son and others like him?

In times like these, it is easy to get mad and want to quit. You are using energy, time, money that you could use for something else, like on your own family. This is where the value of generosity comes in. You, as a leader, realize that it is not all about you and your family. You make it a point to give a part of yourself to the larger community.

Another value that leaders have that do-gooders do not is courage. It's hard to stand up as president of the school board, chair of the president policy council, to speak on behalf of ADA to the tribal council and have people mock you, argue with you and make personal attacks. These things happen, unfortunately. A leader has the courage to stand up for his/her rights and the rights of others. Years ago, my daughter, Maria, a journalist, wrote a few articles where she defended the rights of people to read, write and speak in whatever language they choose. She received hate mail from people telling her she was ruining the country, she should go back to Mexico. (Actually, our ancestors came from Venezuela.)

maria_small.jpgMaria said, "First, I cried. How could people say such mean things to me. And then I wrote. Because that's what I do. I am a writer."

Finally, leaders have honesty.  Honesty is not only telling the truth but also honoring commitments.You accepted on appointment on this board or you ran for election and in doing so, you made a commitment to the people who supported you. Real leaders honor that commitment. Do-gooders excuse their dropping out with "well, it's not as if I am getting paid for this. After all, I have other responsibilities. Besides, I have to think about my own family."

If you have honesty, you remember that you had that same family and job when you agreed to take your position on a board. You at least have the honesty to admit that you are quitting because of a lack of courage to face the opposition, a lack of the perserverance/ fortitude to keep plugging away when it gets tough and a lack of generosity to give to others without any expectation of return. It is easy to help your own family and close friends. They appreciate you, will help you back and (usually) will not engage in mean-spirited attacks on you.

To reach out, to try to help your community, to not give up, to have the courage, generosity, perserverance and honesty to keep plugging away day after day,  THAT is a leader.

A do-gooder may DO good sometimes but a leader IS ethical.



Lying is bad

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I cannot believe I have to explain this to people ....

A part of the new class in Introduction to Ethics discusses the Seven Signs of Moral and Ethical Meltdown, a book and related articles by Marianne Jennings. In it, she points out that much of what we see in the way of ethical violations in organizations does not take a special class on ethics to figure out. She gives Enron as an example and asks, really did anyone say,

"The executive director of a non-profit hired his mistress who had no work experience at a salary of $100,000 a year. When donors and the agency that gave us grants found out about it, they were upset. Gee, I never would have seen that coming."


"What, you mean it was illegal for the president to use company funds to buy thousands of dollars of furniture for his apartment? I never would have guessed that."


"To have the accounting company that was supposed to audit us shred thousands of pages of documents that proved we lied about corporate profits was against rules of the IRS and Securities and Exchange Commission? Really? Who could possibly have known that was wrong? Maybe I should have taken that MBA course on ethics."

As Erich discusses in the course on Introduction to Ethics on Indian Reservations, it isn't that tribal employees and board members are not aware that these behaviors are wrong. There are several reasons unethical behavior occurs.

  1. People have an almost infinite capacity for justifying their actions.  "I need to support my family and speaking up would make me lose my job." "Yes, I did not vote against that motion, even though it was wrong but those people can give a lot of money to our school. I was thinking about the children."
  2. Lack of courage. They flat out are afraid to take  a stand.
  3. Moral dilemmas. Yes, there are rules against nepotism for good reason, but reservations are small communities. What if your sister really is the most qualified candidate? Do you not hire the most qualified person or do you ignore the regulation against hiring a relative, which is there for a very good reason.

Erich (Dr. Longie) sees the world in a lot more complex way than I do, which may be a good thing sometimes and other days not so good.

Thumbnail image for beach-palm-trees.jpgMe, I see it like this:

Lying is bad.

If you have to lie to cover up a situation, that is a sure sign that you are doing something unethical.

When you find yourself repeatedly having to lie to cover up for a person, get away from them. There is no happy ending to such stories unless it is "... And then I got the hell out of there and never had anything to do with those people again."

If I hear one more sanctimonious explanation that someone was just looking out for the children, whether that is a school, basketball team or the speaker's own family, I am going to be really tempted to dump an Indian taco upside down on someone's head. What children really need is adults in their lives who keep their word, who have the courage to make difficult choices and who can be trusted to do the right thing even when it is not easy and popular. Just once, I would like to have someone say to me,

 "My word isn't worth a dead rat. Of course I voted for that board motion even though I told you I wouldn't and I agree with you that it is wrong. Hey, if I didn't, people would be mad at me. I was scared to stand up to my uncle who was on the other side. Besides, they voted to send all the board members to Hawaii at that meeting. I have never been to Hawaii and I really wanted an all expense paid vacation. So there."

Shameless promotion - if you are interested in the Introduction to Reservation Ethics course, it is available free to members of the Tribal Leaders Institute. For a LIMITED TIME, Tribal Leaders Institute membership is free. This is only an annual membership. Click here to join.

In an article on Dakota values in the Tribal Leaders wiki, Spirit Lake president, Dr. Erich Longie talks about the lack of generosity of spirit he sees in many Native Americans. Although they may have feeds, giveaways and other signs of material generosity, he says, there are many who are Indian-crab-like, he says.

For those who don't know, the expression comes from an old, not very funny joke about a fisherman who has a bucket of crabs sitting next to him. When a passerby asks why there is no lid he responds,
"Don't need one. Them's Indian crabs. Whenever one of them gets near the top, the others pull it back down."

As I mentioned in a post on the Tribal Leaders Forum, that same story is told about a lot of different ethnic groups, including in several places where it is actually referring to Indians from India.

Where does this emotional stinginess come from? Why are people so anxious to pull down others? I see this in all sorts of settings, non-profit boards, universities.

It has been attributed to various people, including Henry Kissinger, but it was most likely Henry Sayre  who first said,
"Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

Erich warned me that, when we write newsletter articles, blogs or web pages, if the grammar and spelling are not perfect, people would tear it down, talk about how those people at Spirit Lake think they are so smart, coming in here with doctorates, and look, they spelled "their" wrong.

I was puzzled by this. Our earlier work was on disability and chronic illness, which is an area I have a sincere interest, education and experience. We worked with some great people like Evelyn Klimpel from Fort Berthold and Willie Davis from Turtle Mountain, who also have outstanding credentials. We were trying to provide useful information for people with disabilities and their families while also creating jobs on the reservations through our company. What could be wrong with that?

Erich would just shake his head at how naive I was and say,
"I think it may come from low self-esteem. Whatever the source, when a person, especially an Indian person sets him or herself up as an authority, other people look for something wrong, something that they can pick out and say, 'Ha! Look, their spelling is off,' or 'They didn't know the law changed and now there are 13 categories of disability. Why should we listen to them?' "

This isn't just Indian people, but I have noticed that it occurs more when the stakes are smaller, and usually, on boards, committees, policy councils, the stakes are really small. When I present at a software conference where most of the people in the room are pretty successful, no one says, even under their breath or behind my back,
"That Dr. De Mars spelled 'homoscedasticity' wrong in her PowerPoint. I can't believe they gave her a Ph.D."

In fact, people don't even mention minor mistakes like that - and, of course, everyone makes those mistakes no matter how well-educated or outstanding they are in their field.

Why do people in some situations cut each other slack and in other situations, they are so mean-spirited?

I'm not sure but I think it can come from two sources. One, as Erich said, is low self-esteem. I am often shocked speechless when people will say things like,
"Mavis walks around here acting like she is all better than us, giving talks on teaching children to read. Does she think we don't remember when she was drunk and hanging on every man in sight?"

First of all, that was six years ago. Secondly, I think someone who manages to turn their life around to that extent, get a college degree and develop a program that helps young children is amazing and even MORE deserving of respect than someone who didn't have to overcome many personal and family problems to get where she is. Finally, I can almost guarantee having met many of the Mavises of the world, that what she is thinking is almost certainly NOT "I am better than you" but more likely, "What are good ways to teach children to read? What is the best way to give that information to parents so that they can use it?"

Related to this, I think, is frustration. Fifty years ago, people knew very well that racism would keep some extremely qualified, intelligent people from positions of authority just because they were Indian, or they were women, or they did not grow up in a rich enough family to know the right people. There were people who made it through the system, got degrees, but it was very hard and there were very few of them. Now, American society is better. Not perfect, but much better. When I started working on the Spirit Lake Nation 18 years ago, I could name every person with a college degree. Now I am positive I could not begin to name even all the people who have masters degrees, much less bachelors.

However, as Oliver James, the author of Affluenza said, the result of our advertising-driven, materialistic society is that now everyone has ambition to be rich, successful, famous and powerful. In his words,
"When everyone is taught that you can be number one, even stupid people now have ambition, and stupid plus ambition equals frustrated."

I haven't heard this one - yet - but I have heard pretty close,
"I could do the job of that Dr. Young. He thinks he is so good going to medical school. Just because he got a piece of paper doesn't make him better than me. These people coming from off the reservation taking jobs away from our tribal members. I really deserve that job."

I am not saying that if you didn't go to medical school that makes you stupid. I didn't go to medical school and I think I am pretty smart.

 What I AM saying is pointing out the failures of other people doesn't make you more of a success, often, it just makes you look petty and mean. If your neighbor or your friend's child does graduate from college and come back home to get a good job, celebrate with them. Instead of putting them down, you could even ask about their college experience or work experience, and any suggestions they would have for you if you might want to get a similar job. My guess is they would be pleasantly surprised at your reaction and more than happy to talk with you. Your generosity of spirit in enjoying the accomplishments of other people from your community will be appreciated and remembered far more than any dish of Indian tacos you made or star quilt you gave away.

Tobias Gibson said,  

"Great people talk about ideas. Small people talk about other people."

Try to be great.

The Meaning of Life

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Sometimes chance statements can have a profound effect on someone's life, a fact that should cause us to pause and consider our words more often - but that's the topic of another blog.

The chance statement that had a domino effect in my life came from my daughter, Maria, who asked me recently,

"So, now that you are working at a university again, what are you doing to take advantage of it? Are you going to more plays, lectures, taking classes, or are you just working all of the time like you always do?"

I was a bit embarrassed to admit that, while working at one of the premier universities in the world, I was doing pretty much what I had always done, which is using statistical software to analyze data, writing reports and web pages. I had gone to the library my first week on campus and taken out several books since, three-fourths of them on statistics and statistical software.

That same day, I noticed there was going to be a lecture by Sydney Harman on Succeeding in the New Economy, in Business, Work and Life. It sounded interesting and even more to spark my curiosity was the fact that the flyer mentioned that Dr. Harman was the first and only university professor.  As we all know, professors are professors OF something - a person is a mathematics professor, a business professor or an English professor. Math professors teach in the math department, engineering professors teach in the School of Engineering and so on. Except, apparently for Dr. Harman who teaches in any school at the university that he feels like it.

I put the lecture on my calendar and several times thought,
"Oh, I'm too busy, I can't go."

Then,  I would remember my daughter's question.

One of the first questions addressed in the lecture was the meaning of life. He said that, having been a soldier in World War II, he had experienced at a young age just trying to survive each day. He came to the conclusion that "trying to get through the day is an absolutely dreadful way to live your life and yet, many people wake up each day with that as their only goal".

Sometimes, as in World War II, that attitude may be unavoidable. Probably there are times in everyone's life when it is understandable feeling that just making it through the next twenty-four hours is enough. When I look back on the fog I was in after my husband died, I am sure it was one of those times for me.

I hate to admit, though, that much of my time since has been no more focused than checking off items on today's to-do list. Probably half of the reason I went to that lecture is that it was in my Corporate Time calendar for 12:30.

Does this sound like you?

"I'm a busy person. I work. I have a child I need to make sure has her homework done, lunch packed, gets to school, clean clothes, volleyball practice, books in her backpack. Dishes need washing. Paperwork needs to get done, bills paid..."

Where is the time to stop and think about why I am doing all of this? Do I really need to work as many hours as I do? What do I get out of teaching an extra course or taking another consulting contract? Is it something I really want to do that leads toward my life's goals? Is it consistent with my values? Or am I just doing it out of habit because I never say "no" to extra work.  What the heck are my life's goals, anyway?

Another interesting comment that Dr. Harman made was in response to how did he become the person he is. Like Barack Obama, did he attribute the successes he had to the influence of his grandmother.

He gave two answers to this.
First, he said that the people he had really admired over his life made a career of inventing themselves. Those people gave serious thought on a regular basis to the type of person they wanted to be and the life they wanted to live. To decide who you want to be, he said, you need to begin by deciding what you really believe.

Second, he said that people can affect your lives purely by chance. He gave the example of his neighbor who was a person he sincerely admired and respected. This neighbor happened to be the attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King and through him, Dr. Harman met and got to know King and became very involved in the civil rights movement.

A point that struck me out of this last answer, is that we ought to be a bit selective in the people with whom we associate. How much time do you spend with people who ask you questions like,
"What are you doing to take advantage of the cultural and intellectual opportunities at the university?"

Speaking of the university, one of my favorite people on the faculty invited me to lunch recently. As we were finishing our coffee, she leaned across the table and asked me very seriously,
"If you could invent your own job, do anything you wanted, what would you be doing?"

As with Maria's question, I was really taken aback because I felt that I should have a much more satisfactory answer than the truth, which was, "I haven't really thought about it."

You see, I had been so busy, just getting through the day, getting my work done, paying my bills, going to the bank, stopping by the post office....

I think I have an answer for her, though. If I could be doing anything I wanted I would be doing what I am doing right this minute. Thinking about the meaning of life.