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From Staff Reports

The bad news is that if your operating under a patriarchal leadership model—where the head honcho enjoys special privileges while employees do as they’re told—it can prove highly detrimental for the cohesiveness of your tribal organization.

At least 87 percent of tribal governments fail to execute their strategies each year, and a destructive patriarchal dynamic is one of many possible culprits.

The late chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe for 30 years ruled with an iron fist under great secrecy, and leaves behind a controversial legacy of embezzlement and mismanagement that will take tribal members years to sort out.

Tribal leaders and managers unconsciously fall into patriarchal behavior simply because our tribal culture, even this country, is steeped in that mindset. All families tend to be patriarchal (or matriarchal) by nature, and it’s all too easy to bring a Father-Knows-Best attitude into the workplace.

It’s essential for tribes to root out and eradicate these inappropriate patterns.

There’s talk about employees and coworkers being treated “like family.” Sure, we’re-just-one-big-happy-family-here sounds good, because it implies that everyone in tribal government likes, supports, and looks out for one another.

Not even.

But even with the best of intentions, it’s not always a good idea to relate to employees and coworkers this way, whether you’re in tribal management or an elected tribal leader.

Most families are dysfunctional. When you play the role of Mom or Dad or Big Uncle or Auntie, you’ll inevitably breed “sibling” rivalries, jealousies, and resentment. Nepotism is not uncommon.

Moreover, you’ll find yourself tempted to give your so-called “family members” a pass when they drop the ball, whereas you’d hold actual employees accountable in the same situation.

That is, if you were actually relating to them as tribal employees and not pseudo-family members.

A sense of entitlement has overtaken the ranks. To paraphrase the late, great Peter Block, entitlement is present when managers let their employees get away with too much, and it can seriously affect business.

And tribal government is, when you get right down to it, a very big business, often managing millions of dollars annually, whether from federal funding or casino revenue, or both.

Almost without fail, this attitude prevails in patriarchies because leaders—who think they’re being benevolent—give their people too much leeway. This is especially true for elected leaders.

For example: “What’s the big deal if Imajean is always a little tardy? I don’t want her to get mad and leave, so I’ll just overlook it.”

As a result, tribal employees feel entitled to help themselves to whatever they want, whether they’re taking long lunches, perpetually coming in late, helping themselves to office supplies for personal use, or even embezzling thousands of dollars. Over time, little infractions will eventually turn into huge issues for all of you, as government slowly begins to lose integrity, especially with constituents.

I don’t have to tell you. That ship has often already sailed.

There’s pretending and secrecy around money issues. In patriarchies, leaders operate under the pretense that employees are valued. But often, they actually believe the opposite: that they, the leaders, are making all the sacrifices and therefore should be entitled (there’s that word again!) to a little something extra in the way of “executive benefits.” Hmmm?

Of course, this dynamic leads those on top to hide their relative salary so that employees will not realize how much they are “raking in.” It’s not the fact that leaders (elected or otherwise) are making more money than the rank and file that’s harmful—they should be making more. It’s the pretense and the feelings of guilt that cause problems.

Employees hold their performance hostage. They don’t produce as well as they could. In a patriarchy, leaders think they’re trying to ensure the “kids” aren’t unhappy. Tribal employees will often withhold their commitment and performance until they get what they want. They may even genuinely feel that they’re victims of management exploitation or mistreatment when they aren’t 100 percent satisfied.

Employees know that “Mom” or “Dad” won’t fire them for acting out. They may even resort to sneaky acts of revenge and sabotage until they receive the extra perks they want. And to make matters worse, they may not be consciously aware they’re playing that game.

Since only a patriarchy’s leaders can exercise power and dominance over others, leadership (not innovation or growth) becomes the main goal for employees to aspire to. Charismatic leaders are worshiped whether they’re effective or not.

Meanwhile, creating an environment where people can be of service and partner with others falls completely by the wayside. How many times have you heard people complain about the service they received at a tribal office?

The idea that each tribal employee has something of value to contribute is missing from a patriarchal system. Employees are never allowed to be their fully human selves; instead, a leader’s ego is inflated by marginalizing others.

Maybe that’s a harsh indictment. But, this consequence of patriarchy may be hidden under language that pays lip service to people being the company’s most valuable asset. However, if you look carefully beneath the surface, you’ll find that talk and action rarely meet. Even language like “my people” implies ownership and dehumanizes individual workers, tradition not withstanding.

In patriarchies, you can bet that leaders (elected or otherwise) have favorite “kids,” or “sacred cows.” In India, sacred cows stand in the middle of the road where they slow or stall progress—but no one is willing to call negative attention to them, much less push them aside, because they’re sacred.

Whether a leader willfully overlooks unproductive behavior or simply doesn’t see it, favoritism creates a destructive, dysfunctional culture in which everyone else resents and works around the sacred cow. Meanwhile, the leader is likely to see the sacred cow simply as “my luncheon buddy” or “the person who can always make me laugh” instead of a drain on productivity and morale.

So, what can you do if patriarchy is present in your tribal organization? The first and most important step is stop relating to people by their personalities or privileged positions, and start relating to them based on their accountability—how well they keep their promises to produce real results.

If you notice a gap between their words (what they say they are committed to) and their actions, ask yourself if you’ve actually modeled that behavior for them, and then ask the tribal employee what’s keeping him or her from achieving the results they are accountable for. Then work with that person to provide what’s missing.

Doing this one thing will trigger immense change in your tribal organization—and begin to close the doors on patriarchy. What may be traditional in one sense has been shown not to work in a patriarchal system employing people, and, if anything, can be confusing to employees and encourages favoritism, even nepotism, and produces increasing dysfunction.

Keep lines of communication clear. Keep it simple and direct. Everything in its time and place. Try to be polite at all times, but firm. If you have a problem, solve it. That’s your job, for which you’re being clearly well paid. You’re working with fallible human beings. Communicate!

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