September 26, 2017

VISTA Reflections on the Native Learning Center's Leadership Training in Florida

A scene in Florida where the leadership training took place

Our time at the 2017 Leadership Training by the Native Learning Center in Hollywood, Florida, was not something any of us four VISTAs expected to be a highlight of our service years. Over the course of four days, Dr. Ron Sheffield of OrgScience and professor at George Washington University presented Leadership: Powerful Indigenous Roots. We discussed leadership theory, identity formation and culture—supplemented by information on psychology, communication and ethics.

Our class comprised a mix of people from across the country: young and old, and both from Native American tribes and non-tribal individuals. Dr. Sheffield led us through the following days with the motto of “we learn only when we are uncomfortable” as a guiding force. During the course, we reflected on our identities, connected with our cultures and raised our potential of being great leaders.

Tough Decisions in Leadership

At the very beginning of the class we were given a dilemma in which five people are tied to one set of train tracks and then one person is tied to another set, and we were to decide to which set of tracks to direct the train, thus who would die. Throughout the days at the leadership conference, we were brought back to this decision on what would we do.

I said the one person instead of the five; but then Dr. Sheffield told us the one person was a loved one, and that changed the whole situation. I think in life we have decisions like that one all the time, but luckily, it's not deciding on who to kill. Yet some of our decisions feel that way.

Leadership Theories: Know Your Authentic Style

Dr. Sheffield presented four different types of leadership. It is important that as a leader you know yourself, embrace your strengths and weaknesses, and know your leadership niche. The four types of leadership are:

  1. Authentic Leadership fosters positive self-development and positive change among the collective. They do not judge. They are transparent. They have a genuine desire to serve others and are resilient in their capacity to recover from adversity.
  2. Servant Leadership is rooted in the idea of collectivism and tribal community. It focuses on the growth and wellbeing of people and communities. A servant leader serves first and leadership is the byproduct of service to others. Servant leaders lead with action, not with power.
  3. Transformational Leadership has the purpose of raising the followers’ level of consciousness to transcend their own self-interest. These leaders encourage followers to address their higher-level needs (self-esteem and self-actualization according to Maslow).
  4. Situational Leadership is when a person responds positively to the situation at hand. They are the person that has a skill set and uses it for the greater good. Situational leaders often adjust in a resilient manner, delegate tasks, and support those around them.

Within all leadership styles it is important to be aware that good leadership is the opposite of control. The emotional core of good leadership is trust. You must trust yourself to do what is right and just assist those in your community, trusting in the greater good of humankind.

As a leader, Dr. Sheffield has taught me to be mindful of what I’m doing or not doing, and how it affects other people. Being a leader, you have to watch how you measure people, because you get what you measure in people. Sometimes what you think you see in people is not what they really are. Bad leadership tends to be ineffective and unethical. Leaders are generally judged as ineffective because of the means they employ (or fail to employ) rather than the ends they pursue.

Becoming Leaders Means Understanding Our Own Identities and Culture

Identity; do we really know what is going on inside of each other’s minds? We don't let go of what is happening to us; sometimes we go around all smiles, but inside we could be hurting, experiencing depression, anger, hate and fear. Robin Williams, for example, the man who made people laugh, was depressed so much so that he took his own life. Or some people act on their feelings. What would cause us to shoot people in churches or drive a vehicle through a crowd of people?

What defines us is our community, home, school, church, family and friends that we are influenced by daily. These influences are what made us who we are, and who told us who we were. In this discussion on identity, Dr. Sheffield got us thinking about who or what defines us: the person that we are inside, or the person that we want everyone to see.

Our last question was if you draw your culture in your mind, what does it look like? Culture is very hard to explain. By looking at a picture, you can explore in your mind what you think your culture is, but you really don't know. The picture might be a prop or costume. In my mind, my culture is my American Native family doing what our ancestors done before us, keeping the tradition going. I picture the family around a table eating and kids playing.

VISTAs are Leaders in the Communities They Serve

We learned some important lessons, applicable both to our personal lives and our work as VISTAs in the communities we serve. Among the most important was the weight our words carry as leaders in our communities. The moment we try to define those around us, we dampen their potential—and what good is a VISTA to a community that ceases to see the possibility in themselves? We need to have confidence in our own identities, our decisions and our communities—creating a potential for change.

As VISTAs, it’s important to listen to our communities’ stories, and more importantly, to believe them and trust in them. The minute we turn our backs, distrust, and say “I know,” we convey that we are done learning. It’s important for us not to tell people how to feel about their situation, but to empower and validate our communities with our honesty, kindness and helpfulness.

Wherever we are, whether the deserts of New Mexico, mountains of Colorado or bayous of Louisiana, we are in a learning environment. We may be uncomfortable sometimes with the daunting tasks before us; but as our instructor relayed to us multiple times, you never learn when you’re comfortable.

Coauthored by four Cultural and Climate Tribal Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA members: Katie Dehart, Lauren Hooper, Chayse Romero and Carmalita Sylve.


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