I spoke today at the annual Maine Youth Leadership Conference (MYL) (www.maineyouthleadership.org). MYL is one of my favorite organizations. Each year it brings 10th grade “ambassadors” from every high school in Maine to come together for a program of leadership development, social tolerance and personal exploration. For the past two years I have given the Friday morning talk to the group, during which I have shared my learnings and adventures at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
My talk explores five themes:
- Overreaching. Those who hold the power in organizations often over reach. They go too far. Overreaching has consequences. The conquest of the tribes of the Great Plains during America’s western expansion is one such example (from which there are still communities among us trying to recover).
- We all come from a tribe. We all come from a tribe (family, neighborhood, community, region). Our tribes pull on us all to act a certain way and to do certain things. But we are all here on this earth to individuate; we are all here to hear our own callings and become the person our soul wants to be.
- When we serve ourselves we strengthen our tribe. In this respect, being selfish is selfless for when we find the people, places and activities that truly inspire us we give the most back to the world we live in.
- When it comes to leadership, less is more. In my talk, I share my story of losing my voice to Spasmodic Dysphonia (SD). SD is a rare voice disorder that restricts speech. I acquired the disorder in 2009. Sometimes I can talk freely. Sometimes I can’t. SD forced me lead differently and that turned out to be a blessing. I have since come to believe that every CEO should lose his or her voice, at least for a time. When you lose your voice, as the leader of an organization you…listen more, ask questions, pick your spots more carefully and share the leadership stage with others. I have since become passionate about creating organizations where everyone leads and strengthening the voices of every member of the tribe (be it Hancock Lumber or Pine Ridge).
- Mitakuye Oyasin. Mitakuye Oyasin is a Lakota phrase that means “we are all related”. This concept lives at the center of Lakota spirituality and it has scientific principles supporting it. Lakota philosophy believes that all things that live, have lived or shall live are related as everything that lives come from and returns to the earth. All living things are comprised of the same elements and particles. From the earth to the earth. It is in this way, for example, that the Lakota viewed the buffalo as their “four legged brothers”. I have come to believe that Mitakuye Oyasin is a hidden revelation for our planet. Once rediscovered, the idea changes the way people view the world. The boundaries we see all around us are actually artificial, not real. In the end, we are all one tribe even though we have convinced ourselves otherwise.
During my talk I told the students at MYL that after the Lakota were defeated in the 1870’s, they were sequestered out of the way on a series of remote reservations. For the next three generations, American public policy was to “remake” the Indians so they could live successfully in the white world. Children were removed from their homes (well into the 1950’s and 1960’s) and sent off to unforgiving Indian boarding school to be remade. Their hair was cut, their dress was changed, their language and customs were forbidden. They were conquered then colonized. The effects of this overreaching are still being felt as the reservations on the Northern Plains are to this day among the poorest and most self-destructive places in America. In elementary school we are taught that “Columbus discovered a new world” but people already lived here.
My experiences at Pine Ridge have shown me that the people who live there have all the skills and talents necessary rise above the transgressions of the past and to soar like their ancestors. No one needs to save or fix them. At the same time, the people who live there need to feel recognized, acknowledged and respected. “They don’t even know we are here,” is a common theme I hear at Pine Ridge.
At the conclusion of my talk, the program coordinators made me wait as a group of students went out in the hall. A few moments later they returned with dozens of back packs and school supplies they had organized for me to send to Pine Ridge as a gesture that says “you are not forgotten”. People cried, smiled and celebrated. A short while later, my Jeep was loaded with backpacks.
A guy from a lumber company in Maine and a group of 10th graders from the same state were together reaching out to the people of Pine Ridge saying…we are all related…you are respected…you are not forgotten…be well…go forth in peace.
So cool, I thought to myself as I drove away. Nowhere in my “job description” at our main office in Casco does it say I am supposed to be talking to students at MYL or increasing awareness at Pine Ridge. We all need to listen for our callings and not lose ourselves in the 24/7 churn of “bigger, better, more”. It’s all one tribe and each person on this planet is here to individuate and find their own true path.