June 2009 Archives

I just read Erich's latest blog post, a view on losing a child, from one Dakota parent to another.

Death, visions, religion, spirituality and ethics - how does this all fit together? Erich lost his son. I lost my husband. I was baptized, confirmed, attended school, married and raised my children in the Catholic church. Erich has roots on the reservation that go to the center of the earth and he is Indian to the core and through to the other side.

Coming from such different places, how do we arrive so much in agreement on ethical values?

Courage - the traditional Dakota value that is so central it is even in the name of our next course - Courageous and Ethical Managers. When you have someone so important to you die, you learn some things. Because the worst thing that can possibly happen has already happened, you aren't worried if someone speaks out against you in a meeting, spreads gossip about you or even if you lose your job because you made a courageous, ethical stand and someone with a relative on the council had you fired as a result.

Whether it is Wakan Tonka or Jesus Christ, if you believe there is a greater power over us all, you are not going to be so afraid that Joe the Tribal Worker will get all of his friends to go to the next board meeting and shout out complaints about you. It is not Joe whose standards you are trying to meet in life, it is someone much more important, and the Joes, their shouting, gossiping and even false accusations fade into the background as trivial.

Honesty - every parent acts a little better in front of their children. I lived in some rough neighborhoods in my life and I could swear for twenty minutes straight without repeating myself. However, in front of my children, I watch my language. I partied pretty hard back in the days that I can barely remember (for more reason than one). Once I had children, though, I cleaned up my act.  When you meet someone, fall in love, you want to make a good impression. You try to be a better person, live up to their opinion of you.  Even dishonest people like Joe act better in front of the boss, the tribal council and others he wants to impress.

Whether you call it the Spirit World, Heaven or something else, if you believe your loved ones are going to see how you are living your life, you feel compelled to be a more honest person, more generous, stronger, more courageous.

Erich believes that visions are sent to remind us and sometimes to guide and help us. The Catholic church teaches that saints were sent to help and remind us of how to live our lives. I wear a St. Jude medal, always. It is just a reminder to me that no matter how hopeless a situation appears to never lose courage, we are not alone.

As far as the original issue, of losing a child, losing a spouse, there is no denying that it changes you forever. Is it for the better? Some people say so. It almost sounds like I am saying that, but I am not. I think in Erich's case, and in mine, we chose to learn some lessons from a devastating loss. Because of Dakota culture, I think Erich handled his loss differently than me, at least in the first few years. He grieved publicly and openly for his son for a long time. No doubt that is one reason other grieving parents seek his advice.

I threw myself into my work, for a long time. I got a lot of grants funded and paid off all the funeral bills and medical bills. Political correctness, be damned, I can guarantee you that Erich's way was better than mine. It took me longer to learn the same things, that there is nothing in life that we cannot survive, that we have people we don't want to ever let down, whether they are watching us in the living room, or in a vision and they aren't the people who are at work, they are the people who are the reason WHY we work.


Erich is very fond of "The Management Bible" and quotes it often. He probably likes  it because it is only focused on management and doesn't have any of those distractions like telling you to go to church and not check out your neighbor's wife. The authors talk a lot about policies and procedures - the HOW of management - but not to much about the WHY, the values.

In the latest course in preparation, Courageous and Ethical Managers, Erich goes into greater depth on four traditional values and how these apply to management.

I was re-reading a book today - and that tells you that I REALLY like it because I almost never read a book more than once. It's called Beyond entrepeneurship and its  main author is the same person who wrote Good to Great and Built to Last, Jim Collins. All of Collins' books are about what makes a great company.  

On the one hand, he says that there are many types of effective leaders and asks,
"Can you see Winston Churchill wearing a loin cloth and speaking softly? Can you see Gandhi smoking a cigar and growling, 'We will fight them by land, by air and by sea with all of the strength that God will give us'? Yet, both of them were effective leaders."

On the other hand, he gives seven common traits of people who lead their organizations to greatness and as I read this it dawned on me, Hey! This is exactly what Erich has been saying

1.    Authenticity - or, in Erich's words,  honesty. As Collins & Lazier say in their book, Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett did not sit down and study what were the best values to promote to get the most out of their workers. No, they truly BELIEVED that having respect for all people was important.
2.    Decisiveness - or, in Erich's words, courage. While the great leaders in this book did not just act without planning or studying a situation, they had the COURAGE to make decisions. They were the exact opposite of those who keep analyzing a situation, want to ask one more person's opinion or defer the decision to someone else. When it was evident what should be done, they acted.
3 & 4   Focus/ Ever Forward - or, in Erich's words, perseverance. Leaders who are focused do not allow themselves to be distracted from the task at hand. They work on that budget, job description or removing that problem employee until the job is done. As the book says, there's no way of getting around hard work if you want to be a great leader. It goes with the territory.
5. & 6    Personal touch/ People skilss  - or, in Erich's words, generosity. Great leaders are generous with their time. An 'open-door policy' to them is a real thing, not something that looks good on paper. Great leaders are also generous in delegating authority, they trust people and treat them like adults able to SHARE in decision-making. Great leaders are also generous with positive feedback. They let people know what they have done well.

The seventh characteristic, COMMUNICATION, really pulls all of the four traditional values together. Great leaders engage in HONEST communication. They have the courage to tell the truth when news is bad. They have the generosity to spend time communicating at all levels of the organization. They have the perseverance to communicate with their employees over and over and over the mission, the plans, the purpose and the details of the important work to be done.

In short, Collins & Lazier are saying that today's great leaders have the same qualities Native Americans traditionally valued in great leaders.

If Erich were the type to say, "I told you so," he'd be saying it right now.

Crazy-making jobs

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Over 50 years ago, Gregory Bateson used the term "crazy-making" to describe families of some people with schizophrenia. As he described it, the victim is trapped in an environment with contradictory messages. Some examples include:
  •  a parent who sexually abuses a child and tells her that he loves her,
  • a mother who tells her child how much she loves her, that family is the most important thing in the world, but is at bingo four nights a week until long after the child is asleep and has no money to pay for school supplies
  • adults in a family who insist that they are pillars of the community, who have nice cars, good jobs and are drunk every evening and all weekend.

More and more, I am coming to recognize crazy-making on the job. In the Tribal Leaders Institute courses Erich talks about the need for honesty in the work place. Not only is honesty good in itself but I it is the basis for a workplace that, well, that works. Imagine this common work story ....

Susie works in tribal human resources. She is asked to write a job description for a new position for a tribal planner. Taking her assignment seriously, she talks to the supervisor, reads job descriptions from other reservation departments and puts together an advertisement stating the job requirements include budgeting, grantwriting and experience working for a non-profit or government.

Susie also wrote the attendance policy. She put a lot of work into that also, holding meetings with different managers, talking to employees and council members about what is a fair policy.

Joe's uncle is on the tribal council. We last saw Joe when he was working for the tribal health department, when his co-worker, Susie, had quit, in part because she was fed up with working with Joe and nothing being done about it. His supervisor at the time, Marcia, explained Susie's leaving as pursuing a better job opportunity, and since everyone knew what a hard worker Susie was, no one questioned that she would have other offers. Perhaps someone should have questioned why her boss lost a really good worker and kept a bad one, but no one did.

Joe is hired as a tribal planner, even though he has no experience with budgets, grants or social services. Marcia, his former supervisor, is really wanting to get rid of him by now and writes him a letter of recommendation giving him credit for everything short of inventing budgets.

Joe hasn't worked forty hours since his first week on the job. After three months, Susie approaches Joe's supervisor, Frank,  and tells him that he needs to follow the attendance policy and give Joe a verbal warning. When Joe keeps missing two or three days a week, Susie asks his supervisor about it again. Frank talks about the importance of council support to the planning department, the need to employ tribal members, the importance of family. Susie leaves the supervisor's office confused. She is sure she is right but it seems as if Joe's supervisor thinks she doesn't believe employing tribal members or family is important.

Crazy-making jobs, like crazy-making families are good with "smoke and mirrors", using distractions to make things seem different than they are.

Susie doesn't work with Joe's department that much. She is busy and goes on to other duties. When she has a baby, she takes three months maternity leave because, she tells Joe's uncle on the council, "Family is important." He agrees and she gets three months paid leave. No one sees the craziness in equating giving an outstanding employee for many years time off when she has a baby with keeping your nephew who does no work on the payroll and moving him from one department to another.

A few days ago, someone in California posted on her blog that she had come outside and found a homeless person using her lawn as a toilet. The man was defiant and said it was waste and no different than fertilizing it. Was he any crazier than Joe, Susie and their supervisors? I wonder.

Bernice is hired as another tribal planner the following year because, well, because nothing in the planing department is getting done. She asks Joe if she can see some of the grants he submitted last year to get an idea how the department operates. He tells her he didn't write any, that Jerome, who retired two years ago, wrote them all and he just did the renewals and budget reports. She asks if she can see the budget reports. Joe promises to get them to her right away. Every time she asks him, he says very agreeably, "Sure, sure, I'll get those right to you."

(If you ever saw the movie, Fargo, the car dealer in there must have studied under Joe.)

Susie does not come back from maternity leave, so a new personnel director, Mavis, is hired.

When Bernice goes to her supervisor and complains that Joe is not doing his job and, in fact, has no knowledge of budgets whatsoever, Frank points out that Joe had an excellent reference from Marcia in tribal health, that says he was great with budgets. Bernice is very confused as she has a lot of respect for Marcia.

A few more months go by. Not only has Joe never produced any grants, budget reports or anything else, but when Bernice has asked him information about deadlines or who to see for a particular program he has several times given her the wrong information. More than once, he told Bernice that a board member had cancelled a meeting where she was supposed to be explaining a grant proposal. The first time, Bernice found out just by luck as her niece worked for the board member and told Bernice at lunch that she had to get back to the office and make copies for the meeting. Bernice ran back to the office and spent the next three hours frantically preparing for the meeting. When she walked into the room as Joe was saying, "She must have forgotten ....", Bernice couldn't help but be pleased at the shocked look on his face.

When Bernice complains to her supervisor again, Frank assures her that she is overreacting and that it is no doubt an honest mistake. After all, he points out, Joe has been here for years. He got a positive evaluation last year.

Six months more go by and Bernice is even more confused than ever. Joe has been here for years but it appears that he has no useful skills and does as little work as possible.

When Bernice finally complains to human resources, the personnel manager has been on the job for several months and has had the time to read some of Susie's old memos, including the one about Joe. Mavis tells Bernice that she believes her, they are going to "start the process to do something" and encourages Bernice to be patient.

Bernice is outraged. Be patient? She has been in this situation for a YEAR! Is that not patient? Frank meets with the personnel director the next month because Bernice has now filed a formal complaint with the tribal council and they directed her to look into it. Joe's uncle is still on the council but it is looking like he might lose in the next election. Frank and Mavis agree to spend the next few months watching Joe and checking his time card to see if it matches the hours he really comes in. They ask him for copies of each grant he has written and much more. Joe is really worried now. He even starts coming into work almost every day.

Two months later, still doing pretty much all the work, and with Joe having fallen back into his habit of giving her and board members wrong information, Bernice has had it. She demands a meeting with her supervisor and the personnel director. They are both clearly impatient telling her that they have heard all of this before, it is nothing new, they asked her to be patient for God's sake and they ARE working on it. What more does she want from them?

Just like in the crazy-making families, her own senses tell her one thing while people important in her life, like Frank, tell her something completely different. More than once, Bernice, and Susie before her, is cast as "the bad guy" for complaining in the first place and for not being put off by her supervisor and then the personnel director. She hears a lot of talk about "team players" and patience. Yet, she knows that this problem has been going on for over a year. She knows that she is doing 90% of the work of this "team" of her and Joe. She is told that Joe has received good recommendations and evaluations from tribal health, where he worked for years. Yet, she can tell that Joe has no more idea how to write a grant report than does the plant on her desk. In fact, the plant on her desk might be better because it at least will send in nothing while Joe might send in something that makes the tribe look like its programs are staffed by idiots.

What will happen next?
Will Bernice quit and go on to  a "better job" just like Susie?
 Will Frank and Mavis develop the courage and honesty to fire Joe? (Ha! Might as well ask if winged monkeys are going to come flying out of your computer screen.)
Will Joe end up being moved to yet another department?

Tune in next time to As the Reservation Turns (and if you get that, you are probably as old as me!)