Lessons from Chief Mankiller

Since my last post, I’ve had a lot of time to think about International Women’s Month. In the 41 years since the seed that has grown into this month-long celebration was planted, we’re still addressing issues that prompted it in the first place. (That’s not news—although the number of women who ran for office and were elected in 2018 is. That’s something definitely worth celebrating!)

As I considered what I wanted to contribute to this topic, I spent a lot of time exploring women leaders who have made a huge difference on the planet in their time—yet were unknown to me. Because of the work I do as a leadership coach and master trainer, I was looking for new things I could learn about the patterns of thought or behavior that propelled these leaders forward—despite the challenges they faced.

Here’s what I found: to a person, each of them was internally motivated and internally fueled. When all the cards were stacked against them, they ignored the message that they couldn’t or shouldn’t, and moved forward anyway. Although none of them accomplished what they did alone, they each had an inner guidance system that they trusted above all else.

Earlier this week I had the great privilege of learning about another immensely influential woman, Wilma Mankiller. She was the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, described as “a transcendent leader who overcame rampant sexism to usher in an era of improved stability and prosperity for the Cherokee Nation.”

I was introduced to Wilma Mankiller via the YWCA Greater Cleveland’s 21 Day Racial Equality and Social Justice Challenge. The Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, along with The Lake Erie Native American Council, The Center for Civic Engagement and Learning, the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, The LGBT Center, The Kelvin Smith Library and The Ellipsis Institute for Women of Color in the Academy, screened the documentary, Mankiller, and conducted a Q&A with director and producer, Valerie Red-Horse Mohl (Cherokee).

Chief Mankiller updated and transformed what has become the largest Indian-run health care system in the country, one that includes ambulance services, mobile eye care, and multiple health clinics. She created early education, adult education and job training programs. Under her leadership, the Cherokee Nation developed a wide range of revenue programs and re-established tribal sovereignty.

Her last name comes from the ancient tribal practice of having one person whose role it was to keep the community safe—he or she was the lookout, to warn and protect. One of her ancestors valued that role so much that he kept it as his family name; given her dedication and accomplishments, it aptly describes the role she claimed for herself.

Chief Mankiller said something that sums up the results of all of my research over the past two weeks, as well as my own training and practice of the Inner Work of Leaders for the past three decades:

“We must trust our own thinking.
Trust where we’re going.
And get the job done.”

Wilma Mankiller was a woman of my generation. As I watched the documentary of her life, I was struck by my ignorance of her existence. As we both lived through the significant events of the 60s and 70s, we might as well have been living on different planets.

Now that I have met her through her through the story of her life and her continuing legacy, I’m reminded of the three behaviors she embodied that I believe have had the most impact on my life and on those of my clients.

As International Women’s Month rolls to a close this week, I invite you to consider them for yourself:

  1. Trust yourself. There is nothing outside of you that can guide you better than your own instincts. Even when you make mistakes—and you will—you’ll learn very quickly how to adjust. In the process, you’ll build a bank of experiences that will serve you for the rest of your life.
  2. Play to your strengths. These are the behaviors and skills that are easy for you—they’re also the ones you might be tempted to discount because they take so little effort. Every one of us has innate strengths. Identifying what’s easy for you helps you to focus your attention on what you are uniquely gifted to contribute to the planet—so you can.
  3. Look for the strengths of others. As leaders, it’s our job to get our work done through other people. Wilma Mankiller was a genius at accomplishing the seemingly impossible because she always looked for the strengths in others—whether they generally agreed with her or not, whether they initially respected her or not. She respected herself and she respected them, which made all the difference. When she won her second election as Chief, she won by 83%—an unheard-of margin that is testament to the power of this strategy.

If you want to know more about Chief Wilma Mankiller, check out her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.

(Archival photo from the documentary, Mankiller, directed and produced by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl (Cherokee)

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