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Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation: Learn from All I Observe

Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation: Learn from All I Observe

5.0 1
by Chad "Corntassel" Smith

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"If you want to be successful, it is this simple.
Know what you are doing, love what you are doing. And believe in what you are doing."
— Will Rogers

When Chad Smith became Principal Chief, the Cherokee Nation was a chaotic and dysfunctional entity. By the end of his tenure, 12 years later, the Nation had grown its assets from $150 million to $1.2


"If you want to be successful, it is this simple.
Know what you are doing, love what you are doing. And believe in what you are doing."
— Will Rogers

When Chad Smith became Principal Chief, the Cherokee Nation was a chaotic and dysfunctional entity. By the end of his tenure, 12 years later, the Nation had grown its assets from $150 million to $1.2 billion, increased business profits 2,000 percent, created 6,000 jobs, and dramatically advanced its education, language, and cultural preservation programs.

How could one team influence such vast positive change?

The Cherokee Nation's dramatic transformation was the result of Smith's principle-based leadership approach and his unique "Point A to Point B model"—the simple but profound idea that the more you focus on the final goal, the more you will accomplish . . . and the more you will learn along the way. In other words, "look at the end rather than getting caught up in tanglefoot."

In Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation, Smith combines Cherokee wisdom handed down from generation to generation with a smart leadership approach that takes today's very real issues into consideration. He explains why this leadership approach works and how you can apply it to your own organization, whether business, government,
or nonprofit. Learn all the lessons that drive powerful leadership, including how to:

  • Be a lifelong learner
  • Solve problems with creativity and innovation
  • Recruit and develop strong leaders
  • Delegate wisely
  • Act with integrity and dignity
  • Don't be distracted from your objective
  • Lead by example

More than a simple how-to leadership guide, Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation offers a holistic approach to the subject—how to become a powerful leader inside and direct your energy outward to accomplish any goal you set your mind to.

Praise for Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation:

"These are lessons that can be applied to every organization. Principal Chief Smith's book on leadership is sound and provides steps for every business and organization to improve." — Frank Keating, President and CEO, American banker's Association, and former Governor of Oklahoma

"An indelible chronicling of time-proven elements for tribal and organizational success; just as applicable today as they were a thousand years ago." — Jay Hannah, Cherokee Citizen, Executive Vice President of Financial Service, BancFirst, and former Chairman of the 1999 Cherokee Constitution Convention

"A remarkable account of how the Cherokee Nation reached a pinnacle of success by incorporating common elements of planning, group action, and sharing credit for that success." — Ross Swimmer, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation 1975-1985 and former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, US Department of the Interior

"Chief Smith shares stories with lessons that work in business; it is not where we are, but where we aspire to go that counts." — Harold Hamm, Chairman and CEO, Continental Resources, Inc.

"Chief Smith shares from a Cherokee perspective how to get from where you are to where you want to go." — Archie Dunham, Independent Non-Executive Chairman,
Chesapeake Energy, and former Chairman, ConocoPhillips

"Outlines the reasons for the Nation's amazing growth and stability during [Chief Smith's] term. His principles of organization, leadership, and caring make sense; they work in all organizations." — David Tippeconnic, CEO, Arrow-Magnolia International, Inc.,
and former President and CEO, CITGO Petroleum Corp.

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Learn from All I Observe


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Chad "Corntassel" Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-180883-5




There is nothing as easy as denouncing. It don't take much to see that something is wrong, but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.

Will Rogers July 28, 1935


This book shares the lessons I learned over my twelve years, from 1999 to 2011, as principal chief, a time when the Cherokee Nation was transformed from chaos, confusion, and dysfunction to stability, prosperity, and a sense of accomplishment. The lessons to rebuild the Nation came from a number of sources: traditional Cherokee wisdom, common sense, corporate governance, marketing, biblical history, legal history, and "hard knocks"—we understood the language of many disciplines. The leadership lessons and language were not the stuff of stereotypes manufactured by Hollywood. Our work was nation building, similar to that of other governments of the world. As we all know, lessons are not learned linearly and sequentially, but rather organically and often without any apparent rhyme or reason. The concepts herein are not unusual. A fundamental premise is that we must frame and remember our lessons so that we don't have to relearn the same lessons over and over with different words and from new circumstances. The vocabulary I choose, I remember and I use. Lessons accumulate into knowledge and integrate into wisdom.

As a result of these lessons, by 2011 the Cherokee Nation had developed, grown, and matured exponentially:

• Jobs created by the Cherokee Nation increased from 2,800 to 8,500.

• The healthcare system grew from $18 million of services to $310 million.

• Assets increased from $150 million to $1.2 billion.

• $600 million of construction was completed.

• 100 children were enrolled in a Cherokee language immersion school.

• The Cherokee Nation became a national model for accountability, transparency, and self-governance.

• The regional economic impact of the Cherokee Nation in 2010 was $1 billion.

This book is based on a very simple leadership model, where leadership is defined as going from Point A (where you are) to Point B (where you want to be). During my time as principal chief, it became clear to me that the more we focus on the final product, goal, objective, purpose, end, or destiny—i.e., Point B—things get accomplished and leaders learn what is necessary to succeed along the way. In other words, we ought to look at the end rather than get caught up in tanglefoot.

The lessons learned apply not only to the building of tribal nations but to business, government, nonprofit organizations, and, most importantly, to individuals, families, and communities.

The Cherokee Nation is the second-largest American Indian tribe or nation in the United States. It has a great legacy of facing adversity and adapting, prospering, and excelling. Many do not understand that the Cherokee Nation is a government designated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1830 as a "dependent domestic nation" and has been recognized in the world community of nations since 1721, with its first treaty with Great Britain. That international recognition occurred 55 years before there was a United States of America.

The Cherokee Nation faces external and internal adversity. The external adversity comprises hostile public sentiment and unfavorable federal and state policy. It is like the pendulum on a grandfather clock swinging from one extreme to the other. In the Nation's history with the United States, the full swing of the pendulum occurs every 20 to 40 years. At one extreme of the pendulum, the Indian tribes and nations prosper. After a time in this prosperous period, mainstream society begins to want the tribe's assets, such as logistics, sovereignty, hunting and fishing rights, or natural resources such as land, water, or oil and gas rights. At times, mainstream society has even coveted tribal children, artwork, and identity. When public sentiment grows strong enough, the federal government through treaty and law takes or permits the taking of those assets by whatever means necessary. Thus the pendulum swings the other way. At the opposite end of the swing, the Indian tribes and nations are poor, destitute, and desperate. During this desolate period, public sentiment once again begins to shift toward indifference or support of tribes, and the absence of hostile federal policy allows the tribes and nations to get back on their feet. As the tribes and nation begin to rebuild assets and to prosper, the pendulum begins to swing the other way, repeating the cycle.

The greater adversity involves the internal challenges of leadership, community cohesion, protecting family, and holding on to time-tested cultural values. Today, Indian tribes and nations face the same onslaught of mindless television, addictive social media, poverty culture, consumer convenience, political pandering, and crass marketing that weakens the informed resolve of all Americans.


A brief legal history shows how the foundation of social, political, and economic relationships between the people and governments of the United States, the state of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation developed through the years. On occasion, I hear anti-Indian business interests complain that the "playing field" is not level because Indian nations have "unfair advantages." Usually this assertion comes from certain businesspeople in industries that have enjoyed tremendous tax breaks and subsidies from both the federal and state governments. Part I began with a legal chronology of the Cherokee Nation. What this chronology shows is that the "playing field" was set at Oklahoma statehood in 1907, when the Indian nations, including the Cherokee Nation, again reserved their rights. The state of Oklahoma became a state subject to the rights of Indian nations. In fact, the Enabling Act of 1906 and the Constitution of Oklahoma in 1907 specifically disclaim the state from asserting any authority over tribal rights.

The rights the Cherokee Nation now hold were not given by the federal or state government; they are rights the Nation has always inherently possessed and retained since time immemorial.

The Decline of the Cherokee Nation

As a result of the federal intrusion into Cherokee government and society in 1898, the Cherokee Nation lost its lands, assets, and institutions, and the Cherokee people suffered greatly. Although federal law and the Oklahoma Constitution preserved Indian treaty and federal rights, the federal policy of allotment was devastating. White people flooded into Indian Territory, soon outnumbering the Indians, and began to devise ways of taking Indian land parcel by parcel. One federal case in 1912 cited 16,000 fraudulent land transactions in Indian Territory resulting from whites trying to take advantage of the forced allotment statutes.

By 1920, Cherokees had lost 90 percent of their lands and were forced into a cash economy. As a result, half the Cherokee population left Oklahoma during the Depression on the "Grapes of Wrath" exodus down U.S. Highway 66 to Bakersfield, California, and to other states including Texas, Washington, and Oregon. It was an economic "Trail of Tears." An iconic Depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange captured a Cherokee woman showing her despair in a tent with her seven children outside of Bakersfield, California; the photograph is often referred to as the "Madonna of the Grapes of Wrath" or the "Destitute Pea Picker." For the next three generations, the Cherokees who remained in northeastern Oklahoma became a poverty class.

These federal treaties guaranteed the Cherokee Nation that it would never have to become part of a state. When that promise was broken, Cherokees were repeatedly assured by the United States that their government would continue in full force and effect, but in reality, because of federal bureaucracies, the Cherokee Nation government was nearly eliminated. The state of Oklahoma denied in its constitution any interest in Cherokee lands, but then it enabled and encouraged non-Indians to take Cherokee lands through a host of means.

The challenges facing the Cherokee Nation were not only external; the internal challenges were even more debilitating.

My father grew up in the heart of the Cherokee Nation during the Depression in Oklahoma and had 10 half-siblings. He helped raise the family by hunting, farming, and working. He was a full-blood Cherokee and graduated from Sequoyah High School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. There he learned discipline and mechanics as a trade. He was handsome, athletic, and spoke Cherokee as a first language. After World War II, he married my mom, who lived 10 miles away from where he grew up. She was non-Indian and had 10 siblings also. He was a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps, and she was a "Rosie the Riveter" during the war. They were married in 1947, and I was born in 1950. Because of the desperate economy in eastern Oklahoma, they went looking for work. They ended up in Denver, Colorado, and my dad started a 33-year career with Gates Rubber Company, beginning as a tool crib helper and working his way up to an industrial plant maintenance manager. He was transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 and supervised 130 employees. They moved back to Oklahoma in 1973, and I came back to Oklahoma in 1975 after graduate school. That year I began working at the Cherokee Nation as a planner for Principal Chief Ross Swimmer. That job lasted several years, and I went to law school.

Growing up, we would visit Rachael Quinton, my Cherokee grandmother, in Oklahoma, attend her one-room church, go to stomp grounds, and swim in the creek. I have three brothers and two half-siblings. I remember when I was 12 years old, I was determined to teach myself to speak Cherokee after visiting my grandmother. I found a bible in the Cherokee language and a Cherokee dictionary, and I put them in my briefcase because I was going to teach myself to speak Cherokee. My dad did not teach us because, like others in his generation, he accepted the myth that speaking Cherokee was less important than speaking English.

I married Bobbie Gail Smith, a full-blood Cherokee, in 1978, and our oldest son was born in 1980. When he was 12 years old, I watched him do something I had never discussed with him. He got a bible in the Cherokee language and a Cherokee dictionary, and he put them in a briefcase because he was going to teach himself to speak Cherokee just like I did 30 years prior.

My great-grandfather, Redbird Smith, was a Cherokee Nation senator in the 1890s and was jailed by the United States for protesting its forcible assimilation policy of land allotment. My grandmother was a grassroots advocate for the Cherokee people. Working for the "tribe" was something I wanted to do since college. I was an ironworker during high school and college, putting up the structural steel for buildings and bridges. I enjoyed at the end of a day seeing what I had accomplished. In the early 1990s I returned to work at the Cherokee Nation for Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, who had a nurturing strength and believed in building communities.

Those were influences that encouraged me to run for principal chief in 1995 when Wilma Mankiller retired; I lost to Joe Byrd. His tenure between 1995 and 1999 was disastrous. He stated he could decide for himself what orders of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court were constitutional, and then he fired the entire marshal service for serving a search warrant in order to get copies of attorney fee records that he would not release. He then fired the newspaper editor and the court clerks. His friends on the tribal council impeached the entire Supreme Court for issuing the search warrant. It was called the Constitutional Crisis. As a result, the Cherokee Nation's reputation was shot, Cherokees were embarrassed by the resulting press, 600 employees were furloughed, and another 200 were laid off. The Bureau of Indian Affairs put the Cherokee Nation on a monthly allowance because of mismanagement of cash flow and books that could not be audited.

In 1997, I protested my predecessor forcibly taking over the Cherokee Nation courthouse with his security force where the Cherokee Nation marshals were stationed as ordered by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. In 1999, I ran again and won, but the Cherokee Nation was in shambles. These were the circumstances when I was inaugurated as principal chief on August 14, 1999 (see Figure 1.1). That is when my learning began with great intensity.

The Cherokee Nation had enjoyed outstanding leadership in the past, namely principal chiefs W. W. Keeler, Ross Swimmer, and Wilma Mankiller. W. W. Keeler was the president and CEO of Phillips Petroleum and presidentially appointed principal chief between 1950 and 1970 who strove to pull the Cherokees out of an economic and political abyss. Ross Swimmer, principal chief between 1975 and 1985, established a sound financial and business foundation for the Cherokee Nation. Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected principal chief and was a champion of community self-help, women's rights, and Indian rights during her tenure between 1985 and 1995.

My favorite saying is, "Adversity creates opportunity." For the Cherokee Nation and most organizations and governments, the greatest adversity is lack of leadership, and the greatest opportunity is to develop leadership. The adversity of the Constitutional Crisis of 1999 created an opportunity for the people of the Cherokee Nation to develop leadership and gain perspective. They knew what they didn't want and that they needed to seek leadership, solutions, and resources to make things better.

How do you rebuild a nation after decades of "bureaucratic imperialism" by the federal government, erosion of traditional culture by the mainstream poverty culture, and the patronizing belief of the American citizenry that American Indians are cartoon characters or casino rich?

Green Roof: Who Should Take Care of My Mama?

A poverty culture based on being a victim, blaming others, expecting something for nothing, and transferring responsibility to others encroached on the traditional Cherokee values and attributes of self-reliance, cooperation, and confidence. The result: a number of Cherokees felt helpless and like victims. It was a feeling imported from and shared with the general population. Some people call this an "entitlement" mentality. Like a disease, an undeserved sense of entitlement seemed to have spread across America, infecting many poor and even well-to-do Cherokees.

I remember very little from my sophomore English composition class at the University of Georgia in 1970 except for a personal story told by the professor. He was a small man with a mustache; he was complaining about the small Social Security check his mother got and how it was not enough money for her to get by. He said she had raised four boys, and the U.S. government should provide her enough money to live with dignity. He was Canadian! I was afraid to ask the question on my mind: "If the government is not taking care of your mother, why don't you and your three brothers do it?"

Contrast his story to that of Lizzie Whitekiller, a 96-year-old full-blood bilingual Cherokee woman. She is the type of person who lives life fully. Forty years ago, she and her husband, "Gete," built a U.S. Department of Housing Mutual Help "Indian house." The house had wood siding and was designed to last only 30 years. It is immaculate today because her 11 children take care of her and the house. At age 62, she went back to school and got her GED. Every year, 100 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren come home to her house for a family reunion. She handmade a quilt including each one's picture. Their family is truly a family because of her. She showed that we did not have to feel helpless and like victims.

As principal chief, the first column I wrote for the Cherokee Phoenix in 1999 was called "Green Roof." I wrote it at the beginning of my administration, when we were searching for the ideas, words, and ways to lead our people and ourselves to be stronger and more positive. This column foreshadowed many of the lessons I would learn in greater detail and articulate better in the coming years.

"Green Roof" By Chad Smith, Principal Chief

Almost a decade ago, my father passed away. Left behind was my mother, who lives alone in the home my family built. Several years ago, the home developed a roof leak.

Whose duty was it to fix the leak? Whose obligation to replace the roof? Who had the obligation to see that my mother was warm, dry, and comfortable? Was it the federal government's responsibility through some federal program? Was it the state government? Was it Cherokee Nation?

The answer is a simple one that is found in the lessons my father taught each of us as a part of his legacy; it stems from the culture of the Cherokee Nation. He was a special man.

I have three brothers. It was our duty and responsibility to fix the roof. To us belonged the honor of taking care of our mother. That honor is a great one, which was accepted with pride and joy. My brothers and I replaced the shingles with a green metal roof. It was our privilege.

I have heard many stories about families since I took office as principal chief. One of the saddest was from a grandmother who came into my office in a wheelchair. She deeded her comfortable home to a son in return for her care for the rest of her life. The son mortgaged the house for $30,000. He took the money and wasted it in Las Vegas and other places. Then he vanished, leaving his mother defenseless and with a mortgage that she could not pay. The elderly woman had five other adult children. She came to my office asking for help because the county sheriff was going to foreclose on her home. None of her children offered to take her in. None of her children offered to make the payments on the modest house. None of the adult children provided alternative housing for her.

Excerpted from LEADERSHIP LESSONS from the CHEROKEE NATION by CHAD "CORNTASSEL" SMITH. Copyright © 2013 by Chad "Corntassel" Smith. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chad Smith, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999-2011, has been a powerful force in building businesses and working toward self-sufficiency for Native American Nations. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to rebuilding the Cherokee Nation and helping Cherokees learn how to help themselves.

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Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nat Ion: Learn from All I Observe 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Steve_Amoia More than 1 year ago
"How do you rebuild a Nation after decades of 'bureaucratic imperialism' by the federal government, erosion of traditional culture by the mainstream poverty culture, and the patronizing belief of the American citizenry that American Indians are cartoon characters or casino rich?" --- Chad "Corntassel" Smith, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Organized Format There are eight chapters (the first is an intriguing historical introduction by the author) along with ten appendices that provide Chief Smith's "State of the Nation" annual speeches. The author's writing style is informative, highly educational, colloquial and at times, brusque. He describes the Cherokee Way of Life (iyudsi egeyonv degatvsvi) in brilliant detail by using personal and business-related examples.  Historical Perspective and Cherokee Tongue This book provides a history lesson that many outside of the Cherokee Nation may not have seen in such detail and accuracy. Chief Smith writes in great detail, yet concisely, to paint an accurate history of his tribe. For example, "The Cherokee Nation had 12 treaties with Great Britain before there was a United States. As the story goes, when the Cherokees and British gathered at the treaty table, the Cherokees would ask the British, 'Where are your women?' questioning how the British could make good decisions without their own women present... In the 1820s, the Cherokees memorialized their law that women could dispose of their separate property without their husband's permission. American women didn't get that right until after World War II..." (Page 46) I also liked the linguistic inclusion of Cherokee words and phrases. Culture flows from our ancestors as well as from language. The latter's portrayal in this book was an integral component to understand the history and struggles of the Cherokee Nation.  Please Note I have received a complimentary review copy from a representative of the publisher, McGraw-Hill. I was not compensated by the author, publisher or any other party who would benefit from a positive review. Please excuse any spacing issues in this review.