Strong and Courageous
Imagine if you will a child deprived from the basic necessities of life by parents consumed by addiction; an infant born addicted to crystal meth; a toddler sexually abused by a family member; a 17 year old struggling to belong after a series of forty-one placements in a sequence of foster homes and group placements; a state of emergency in a community plagued by death as a result of numerous fentanyl overdoses. As I describe these realities in my community, I am curious – what is the immediate thought which crosses your mind? One of judgment? One of compassion? One of justice? As you ponder your response let me introduce you to leadership in my world.
Strategy in leadership is my “go to”. It is my response to find a better, more efficient means to an end. But my vision was clouded as I have spent the last six years completely immersed in another world, a different culture. Yes, a culture different than I learned in my journey as a leader up to that point, but even more varied in terms of how a community, let alone an entire nation, is impacted by historical oppression and intergenerational trauma. Stress has a significant impact on the emotional, cognitive and physical operations of a human being; can you IMAGINE what trauma does to ones interpretation of leadership? I spent the majority of my professional career and personal journey as a leader in what I will refer to as Western Society. I was educated in the Western world both pre and post secondary. I became a financial manager early in my professional career and learned the old economy ways of leadership – as a female in a male dominated industry. The suit did not fit – then, nor does it fit now. Living and working in a First Nations community completely changed my perspective of leadership. And it is why I stepped outside my present place of employ to gain a renewed perspective through engaging in this study of leadership. My personal assessment as a strategic leader is swayed by the work I currently do, as is my personal perspective of who I am in midst of this very Western view of leadership. The caveat to this is: in midst of this journey God is leading me; He has identified clearly His vision for the future in this land He has placed me: “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them” (Joshua 1:6, New International Version).
My general response to most circumstances in my life is to dig in – to work harder, work smarter and to find solutions to issues – it is the Western way. And it is what motivates me to follow God’s call on my life as I have entered into challenging environments on numerous occasions. My style of leadership is to empower, endorse and encourage individuals and teams to gain confidence, to seek solutions independently and collectively. According to Northouse (2018), “at its core, helping followers grow and succeed is about aiding these individuals to become self-actualized, reaching their fullest human potential” (p. 236). I obtained my degree in social work, a field where the work is endless: high stress, high workloads and limited resources. Critical thinking is imperative in my professional field and can literally mean the difference between life and death decisions. As a leader, my role is to listen — to their assessment and proposed decision of the emergency at hand — and guide their response in a way most efficient and appropriate within the crisis circumstance. I listen for facts versus biases and cue team members to expand their thinking, to explore alternate approaches to arrive at outcomes which secure the safety of children and youth. My role is to ascribe to critical thinking techniques and ensure facts are what influence final decisions. Working in a small rural First Nations community however, is difficult to ignore the relational and cultural components which form part of our decision making process.
Having been in this environment for over six years, my response to most circumstances is from the lens of poverty, oppression and crisis. The issues we deal with on a daily basis include: addiction, domestic violence, sexual assault and the new wave of drugs are overwhelming and exhausting as we bear witness to horrifying impacts to children, families and community — including death. Considering each of these factors, as a Social Worker I practice from a solutions and strengths based approach. Similarly as a leader I seek to listen, understand and build a bridge through means of respect, collaboration and identification towards methods of change.
In addressing stressors within my professional life I must take opportunity to step away from the crisis – even for a moment to clear my thoughts. Self-care is a necessary practice to maintain a clear and logical position in relation to decisions made daily. Simple self care techniques such as eating healthy, deep breathing and literally stepping outside to breathe fresh air are common practice to maintain clarity and sanity. As a leader, my priority in ensuring staff engage in self-care rituals is critical to our daily operation. When it comes to those moments I am “done” I completely rely on God to replenish my strength, wisdom and direction. When I leave God out, I allow myself to become overwhelmed and I simply shut down – apathy sets in and my thoughts, no longer clear– I cannot make even the simplest of decisions. I am no longer healthy to the environment I work or myself.
Personally, when I am most effective and functioning at my optimal, I am eating well, exercising, making time for God, my family and animals. I am investing in a healthy lifestyle and I manage the many stressors. Too often this is not the case. I have to be very diligent and purposeful to ensure I take care of myself, specifically as my well being hinges on those who surround me: my work, my family and my small tribe of people who are close and meaningful in my life.
Strengthening my response to stressors, begins with ME and is as simple as establishing daily routines: waking earlier in the day to incorporate time for devotions/study/reading and allowing myself reflective time before the day begins. I require time to re-charge and re-balance myself for the action filled days with work. When I focus on self-care, stressors at work seem less apparent and more manageable.
I typically spend time at the end of each year conducting a personal SWOT analysis. I have done this since 2006. The time period of 2006 is significant as it was the year I left my marriage. I had previously seen myself as susceptible to negative influences and the process of reflection in completing a personal SWOT analysis has been rejuvenating and real. It also allows me to focus on my goals in the pending days and years to come. This process has assisted me to realize some very significant milestones in my life – reaping personal benefits and for those in my sphere of influence.
HOWEVER, for the past three years I did not demonstrate the same commitment. My time is less productive, I engage in less self care and at the end of the day I am worn out physically, mentally and emotionally, having allowed the tragedies of the day affect my whole being. My mind does not stop as dreams of work and specific situations prevent me from a solid sleep, thus waking tired as I begin the next day. This is a difficult cycle to break. Good news, despite this vicious cycle, I have taken positive steps to BEGIN and identify small wins.
Be Strong and Very Courageous
My personal vision and mission centers around God’s influence in my life and how I access experiences to have finally realized my purpose. While I have far from arrived, I know the collective experiences and challenges encountered across my lifespan prepared me for this time in my life. I walked through some very challenging times convinced I would not regain my step: sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction and two near death experiences. Yet I remain equipped and ready because of His strength. I attempted to entertain other interests in my life only to return to this field of work. I have strayed as a Christian several times and yet I am loved beyond measure and rely on this fact as my saving grace. My life’s many lessons is the story I share with others experiencing their own story, ending with the love of a Saviour who accepts us despite our worldly ways. Within my history of collective experiences, I have identified clarity in God’s direction as described through my Vision, Mission and Values below:
Vision: To continually seek, identify, adapt and live out God’s purpose in my life.
Mission: To make a difference in the lives of others; to recognize the potential others do not recognize in themselves; to lift and encourage others to their potential; to have hope when others have none; to rely on God’s strength to accomplish the insignificant and the impossible.
Values: integrity, respect, compassion, transformation, courage, transparency, cooperation, peace and solitude.
The personal strengths or key drivers I bring to this journey include: health, desire for growth in my intelligence through continued education, fiscal responsibility, passion for God’s will in my life, a compassion for those less fortunate, a devotion to whatever God leads me to, integrity in my choices and a capacity to make a difference. To maintain strength in these drivers, I need to access like minded people, mentors and coaches who will forge critical and strategic thinking and help me to abandon the thinking I am not good enough.
The necessary professional drivers in my place of business include human resources, leadership, program capacity, teamwork, engagement of Board, funding/financial responsibility and cultural ways of knowing. As an organization, within these drivers we must access and endorse leadership training and mentoring at all levels, collaboration, define the concept of TEAM as priority, transparency, ethical work practices and capacity for change. To execute these we must abandon: unethical decisions based on hearsay, a blame mentality, an authoritarian approach to leadership and nepotism. Lepsinger (2010) “identifies a lack of accountability to reinforce a culture of blame – which in turn generates other problems” (p. 79). Individually, I need to abandon the need to be the expert and the falsity as visibly Caucasian I am an adversary of First Nations people and thus incapable of making a difference.
Professionally, I envision an environment of change, promotion and encouragement of one another’s strengths while developing skills within the team. Despite challenges within a crisis environment, I recognize opportunity whereby the level of critical thinking is honed and supported through collaboration and support of each another. I see a mandate of hope for something better than what has been within First Nations communities. Education is necessary as it relates to the Western world’s understanding of the historical oppression suffered at the hands of the church and Western leaders. Education can bridge valleys; can close the gaps. Where we have set out to Kill the Indian Save the Man (Churchill, 2004), “resulting alcoholism, suicide and the transmission of trauma to successive generations has led to a social disintegration with results that can only be described as genocidal” (xiii-xvii); our posture should learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and how this understanding can strengthen our nation as a whole. God is ever present in the community I work. The church is ever present. Absent is the generalized belief of non-native individuals in the genuine beauty and strength within our First Nations people. As Christians, we often look upon native spirituality as EVIL whereas when peering through God’s eyes there exists a deep beauty and rich history connected to biblical origins.
God longs to heal the hurting, to see the Nation rise and enter into true reconciliation; to collaborate as a community of people united; to maintain safety in our homes; to bring back the philosophy of children as our most sacred resource; to claim a community back from the destruction and trauma of residential school, the sixties scoop and child welfare.
Personally, the vision quest I long to journey exudes health and longevity, knowledge and wisdom, authenticity and God well represented in presence, my words and my actions so I may execute His strategic purpose in my life.
Old versus New
Within my practice as a leader working in a First Nations community where governance and business adheres to old economy thinking, it is challenging to say the least, to move forward into the new economy way of thinking. Position and entitlement, turf protection and control, self-serving individualism and nepotism along with privilege and aristocracy of power IS the way our organization operates. When leadership ascribes to this form of practice, it is difficult for the team to react differently. Entrenched in this environment, it is difficult to resist falling into the same patterns as my peers and leaders. I found I became self-serving and very individualistic as I watched my peers make unethical choices and take advantage of the organization’s laissez faire work environment. I focused solely on my work and refuted collaboration with unethical counterparts. As a front-line worker, I attempted to unite forces in meeting the needs of the child, family and community, however was recognized as an outsider. When I became a team leader, my skills and competencies were questioned and doubted. Thank God — literally—I did not give up. As a formal leader for three years, it took three long years to attract a team of new economy thinkers. We are on the brink of developing very different strategies than seen before. I recently was offered to step in during a leave of absence of our organization’s Director – for six months – as the Program Manager.
The opportunity to apply strategic leadership in an organization such as ours is described by Ungerer et al. (2016) “as an integral part of society and must be fit and friendly to human life” (p.15) by engaging staff at all levels in a vastly different approach to a historically oppressive approach to the safety of children. Understanding and knowing WHY we are in a position to ensure the safety of children in our communities is paramount to strategic leadership, as we are “guided by values that stimulate them to make a positive difference in global and local context” (p.17). Through the lens of Possibility Thinking Ungerer et al. relays “contribution produces a shift away from self concern and engages us in a relationship with others that is an arena for making a difference” (p.9). In my field making a difference IS what we do.
Wide Angle Lens
To become a better strategic leader I must first take a step back to gather a glimpse of our organization from a higher level. I do not mean in terms of position, rather instead a macro view of what we do and WHY. Our decisions are based on legislation dictated to us by Provincial and Federal governments. Theses policies do not allow for the intimacy of face-to-face interactions with a child who impacted by trauma. When one truly understands trauma’s global impact on a child, it is imperative we become more strategic and reconstruct strategy from a collaborative versus an authoritarian perspective. To re-construct strategy and review our organization’s vision, mission and values, according to Hughes et al. (2014) “we touch the emotions of all the stakeholders involved” (p.25) – especially the children.
Personally, I must continually observe, review and assess my role as leader to adopt a more strategic perspective and identify strategic drivers to aid in creating sustainable advantage through the identification of “potential areas of investment that will have a significant impact on the organization’s ability to achieve its performance potential” (p.26). With the current shift in leadership, we are in prime position to develop a leadership strategy which identifies the “human capabilities needed to enact the business strategy effectively” (p.32). Communication of strategies to team members is imperative in order clear understanding and buy-in at all levels whereas “tactics may be misaligned because people throughout the organizations don’t really understand what the strategy means for them on a day-to-day basis” (p.34). It is imperative for whole team engagement and understanding.
Closing the Circle
As I close this circle, I recognize my lens has shifted: from entering into this organization six (6)+ years ago a very Westernized strategic albeit naïve leader to one where I recognize the critical issue for strategic leaders in Indigenous communities “to make changes that progressively build on each other and represent an evolving enhancement of the organization’s well being” (p.21). Having completed this full circle assessment, I realize I am in a preferred position to strategically position our organization toward change utilizing both Indigenous and Western perspectives. As I attempt to execute this distinctive approach of strategic leadership I must make a serious personal shift: pause, take time for self care, spend more time with my family, ride my horse, invest in more time with God — anything not categorized as “work”. This is my most challenging venture yet within this journey, as I consider my work my mission — my God given purpose.
As I consider the role our organization plays in our community –- crisis intervention, prevention and protection, I must acknowledge God’s heart for our community is greater than mine can ever be and I must lean on Him when I am discouraged and resigned due to the lack of change. It is especially during these moments I am reminded of Joshua’s obedience and commitment to God’s word: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Be strong and very courageous” (Joshua 1:9, New International Version).
Churchill, W. (2004). Kill the Indian, save the man: the genocidal impact of American Indian residential schools. San Francisco: City Lights.
Hughes R., Colarelli-Beatty K., & Dinwoodie D. (2014) Becoming a strategic leader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lepsinger, R. (2010). Closing the execution gap: How great leaders and their companies get results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
New International Version. (1991). Life application bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishing.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and practice. California: Sage Publications.
Ungerer, M., Ungerer, G., & Herdoldt, J. (2016). Navigating strategic possibilities: strategy formulation and execution practices to flourish. Randburg: KR Publishing.