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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Decolonizing Leadership: Qualities of a Better Leader

Over the years, leadership and the qualities it takes to be an effective leader have been colonized, so much so that many of us don’t even question the reality of what a good leader is. As I’ve been deepening my decolonization journey and healing myself from the colonial trauma I’ve faced, I’ve been thinking often about what leadership can look like. As with anything Indigenous, the future is also the past, and vice versa. Those of us who understand Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being know that in order to move forward in a good way, we have to look to the past and bring it forward in a way that serves us today. A big part of doing so with leadership is remembering the qualities that pre-colonial leaders possessed or worked towards developing. I’ve been working hard to embody the traits our ancestors held in high regard, and I know I have a long way to go in my growth but I’m excited to share my lessons with you today.

This is the first set of qualities that I’ve come across in Indigenous leadership:

  1. A leader understands their position is submission to duty, not elevation to power

Have you seen that photo that gets passed around differentiating a boss from a leader? If you haven’t seen it, I’ve added it to this post for you to observe. The boss sits upon a slab that the workers are trying to pull, directing them but not working with them. The leader is instead off of the slab and pulling alongside the workers.

There is a common Western misconception that being a leader means you are in charge of people and that you maintain power in a relationship. This misconception makes space for abuse of power because when we treat leadership as a chance to attain power over a space or the people in it, our responsibility to take care of them as equals takes the backseat. In fact, power undermines responsibility and makes ethical leadership impossible.

The only way to approach leadership from an ethical standpoint is to remember that leadership is “submission to duty, not elevation to power." People rely upon their leaders to make decisions that will benefit them and their community. Unfortunately, in Western society, many “leaders” make decisions in a way that benefits themselves and their families or further consolidates their position’s power.

To decolonize leadership, we have to approach it in a way that places leaders as fully accountable to their people. All notions that positions of power can or should be used for personal gain must be replaced with the understanding that leaders are only in positions of influence or authority because their community placed them there. That concept alone should inspire humility in leaders, but so many leaders neglect their responsibility to the relationships they have with the people they serve. Decolonizing leadership teaches us that leadership can no longer be associated with power but must, instead, be associated with duty and reciprocity. We need to consistently ask “What can I give back to the people that we serve”?

2. Leaders spend more time listening than speaking

When you’re planning what to say next, you aren’t listening. If you aren’t listening, how can you know which decisions will best suit the situation and the people involved? In the same vein as “leadership is submission to duty, not elevation to power,” how can a leader understand what will be best for their community if they don’t spend any time listening to what the community and the people in it say they need? Simply put, they can’t.

This is one of the main reasons that Reconciliation dialogues with Canada and many Settlers don’t go anywhere. For over 150 years, Indigenous Peoples have been telling colonizers and the colonial government what we need and what we want in our relationship with Canada and Canadians. Yet time and time again we are given the same solutions we didn’t ask for from the people pretending to listen to us. The assumption that the Canadian State and the colonizers/Settlers that it serves know better about what Indigenous communities need than the communities themselves is based on White Supremacy and hierarchy. Likewise, when a leader views themselves at the top of a hierarchy, they are devaluing everything those they serve consider important by placing the community beneath themself.

I’ve heard Elders say that we should spend at least twice as much time listening as we do speaking. Being someone who loves to talk, I’m still working on this one. However, if we want to know the people we serve and serve them well, we have to take the time to listen with discipline to the things that they deem important. For those of you who struggle with listening like myself, I encourage you to take extra care to listen deeply before you speak.

3. Leaders use trust instead of control

If you’ve read Calling My Spirit Back, by Elaine Alec, or taken a Cultivating Safe Spaces Workshop, then you’ve already encountered fear-based practices and love-based practices. Fear-based practices (shame, exclusion, oppression, and sickness and death) are the main tactic used by the colonial state to control all people. I’m going to say that again: the colonial state uses fear-based practices to control everyone on this Land, not just Indigenous Peoples. The only way to counter fear-based practices is to work from a place of love-based practices. In doing so, we choose trust over control and understand that control is not only impossible but also unnecessary for leaders.

Leaders understand that there is no single way to be, no blueprint, and no template. In a fear-based leadership model, the environment that’s cultivated doesn’t respect individuality or different Ways of Being. If we want to create a space where people feel safe and able to contribute to a community’s goal, we have to respect that each Being has a unique set of gifts. These gifts range from thinking style, working style, talents, and passions. As leaders recognize that leadership is not about consolidating power over others but about empowering others to contribute in meaningful ways, community members will experience trust instead of control. Through trust, leaders and the community enact love-based practices (validation, inclusion, well-being, and freedom) and create a safe space for both sides of the relationship.

4. Leaders include all perspectives and voices

Leaders honour the diversity of a group. In Cultivating Safe Spaces, we honour the Four Perspectives (Traditional, Relationship, Innovation, and Action). Even outside of the Cultivating Safe Spaces world, there are many workshops and quizzes to help people categorize the way they think and move through the world. Far from being a colonial tool of strict categorization, these new ways of seeing ourselves give us the opportunity to understand the people around us and what they need to feel safe and included. A foolish person will assume that everyone thinks and behaves like them. In learning the importance of each perspective and each voice, we respect and promote diversity within our groups and communities.

All voices and perspectives do an incredible job of ensuring that the work each group does serves everyone involved. The more perspectives a leader excludes from the conversation and decision-making, the more voices are lost. Each voice that’s lost consolidates power for the individual in the leadership position. Controlling whose voices are included in the discussion is a colonial tactic for controlling who has a say in group dynamics and welfare. If we want to decolonize leadership, it’s key to ensure that every voice has a place in the discussion and is valued equally.

5. Leaders seek counsel and make decisions based on consensus

Of course, we already spoke about leaders listening more than they speak. However, we can expand upon this quality by discussing the leadership quality of seeking opportunities to listen. Instead of waiting for community or group members to come to them, leaders actively seek counsel and learning opportunities from Elders and community members. It’s well known within many Indigenous Nations that Chiefs merely hold their position if the people are happy with the way they run the community. Blind faith in a Chief was never a Traditional way to do things on Turtle Island, but many people have lost sight of this vital governance element after having the colonial band system forced upon us. In the past, if the people were displeased with their Chief or the decisions they made, they were free to leave or even dehorn the Chief. Despite this Knowledge being suppressed in favour of Western-style white supremacist patriarchy, we still have this freedom. We must choose to hold our leaders accountable over blind faith in those in positions of power.

The reality is that leaders are responsible for the community and the people they serve. If they want to be effective and keep their position, they have to prove that they value the relationships they have with the people they serve. Gathering voices, opinions, worries and more ensures that leaders have all the necessary information before coming to a decision. However, even a good leader’s decision isn’t above being questioned or rejected. There is a skill and nuance to leading people without falling back on power, control and fear tactics. Operating from a place of trust in your community and group members requires gathering as much information as possible, and weighing them all equally. It means that you put away assumptions of how you think things are meant to be and seek alternative options.

6. Leaders are accessible and within reach

I’m not suggesting that leaders are always available at any given moment. However, I know several band offices that don’t list contact numbers or emails for their Chief or Council. Being available 24/7 isn’t the answer to this issue, but ensuring office hours or periodic email and voicemail catchup time is vital to ensuring leaders are accessible to the people they serve. Barriers to reaching a group’s leader indicate that their input has little to no value, which simply isn’t true.

In many instances, people fear that if their number or email is available then people will call them nonstop. But the end result is that people can’t give leaders their feedback or contribute their voices to the decision-making process. As such, ensuring that community or group members always have at least one avenue to send their thoughts or wishes to you is a crucial part of effective and ethical leadership. Preventing an echo chamber of similar thoughts and opinions will change the outcome of the decision-making process, so leaders need to create avenues to collect those opposing opinions within their community or group.

7. Leaders promote other people’s value

Lastly, a leader understands that other people aren’t their competition. There is no hierarchy, and everyone is welcome and valuable. The idea that a hierarchy is necessary for effective leadership is misinformation spread by colonial structures that only function when people are being controlled. Leaders promote diverse gifts in their groups, teams and communities because they understand that the more competencies their group has, the more qualified they are as a whole. Further, the more qualified the group is as a whole, the more effective they will be.

It’s also important to highlight the learning aspect of being a leader. In Western culture, the leader is considered the most competent or qualified person in the room. In Indigenous leadership, that’s not necessary. In many ways, our leaders are competent and qualified, but the presence of other qualified people doesn’t devalue what the leader brings to the group. We have to shun the concept of top-down information flow that has permeated Western leadership models. True leaders will learn from their group members and will work hard to promote the value of those same members. Leadership cannot be a top-down approach, or it effectively cuts off the contributions that other members can make to the team.

Decolonizing leadership is a necessary part of Reconciliation and LandBack. As we continue to assert our sovereignty, Indigenous Peoples must be intentional in the governance systems we rely upon, from the Nation level right down to the individual level. If we don’t decolonize our leadership models, we are simply recreating Western models and slapping feathers and drums on its facade. Patriarchy, white supremacy and other hierarchies are simply hidden under an Indigenous disguise. If Reconciliation and LandBack are to be successful, we have to take it upon ourselves to implement better leadership qualities.

As I decolonize, the depth of Western colonial tactics is exposed more and more within my life. What qualities of a leader do you look for? Have you given it much thought? I encourage everyone to question every assumption or teaching they have about the way things are being done on a colonial Turtle Island. Today, we start with leadership.


Jen Greenway


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