The Lakota Way

Good reasons to care about Indian culture
By Holger Scholz

The complex and global challenges of our time call for creating new forms of collaboration and new kinds of organizations. The leadership practices of the Lakota provide suggestions on how to achieve this.

The Lakota culture is one of the oldest active social structures in the world. Owing to the help and wisdom of their great leaders, the Lakota Indians have been able to meet tough times and changes over the course of 500 to 1000 years. Their social achievements, knowledge of nature and ancient rituals have thus far helped them preserve their traditional way of life.  

Today, wise decisions and forward-looking management practices are crucial not only for the Lakota, but for everyone living in so-called modern times. Anyone who faces the complex and global challenges of the present needs a management style which shows respect to future generations. It's obviously not just about current intelligence and technology, as not everything which is possible and feasible appears to be helpful.  

It therefore seems worthwhile to take a look at the wisdom and traditions of the "First Nations" - specifically the Lakota Indians. This isn't because of a sense of a romantic-exotic escapism, or as some sort of playful hobby. It is from the conviction and certainty that new forms of leadership and management are necessary, and that the governance practices of the Lakota can provide some useful suggestions.

Management and leadership today

The current discourse on management and leadership struggles to provide answers to fundamental social change. It is not hard to see a global and overarching crisis in the human world throughout virtually all walks of life. It is not the crisis of a single sector, but a crisis of our individual biographies , and a way of life which has hitherto been led by our institutions and organizations. It is also the crisis of capitalism.  

It is the crisis of what we have become and what has become of our society. Such a crisis can no longer be cured through individual measures, but has to be resolved at a more fundamental level. What is to be done?  

We need to find clarity about who we are and who we could be. Because we are not defined only by our past. We are also products of our future. We have opportunities, and the ability to think, pause and reflect.  

The beginning of all management and leadership is therefore one's own thoughts. What do I think about the world? And how is everything connected? What do I think about myself? And others?  

An example:  

Theory A: "The world is a place where people have to strive to succeed and man is the crown of creation."  

Theory B: "The world is a wondrous, great mystery and mankind is connected to everything." Psychologists and communication scholars call theories like these 'basic assumptions' or 'mental models'. They control how we interpret the world and individual events, and how we react to them.  

This is inherently important for management and leadership. What images do we carry in our mental luggage? How do I interpret disruptive change in the market and society, and how do I react to it? According to assumption A or assumption B? My interpretation of events determines how I react.  

One's own basic assumptions are seen more clearly, when we compare them with those of other people and other cultures.

The culture of the Lakota and their internal state

As an example of an internal constitution (attitudes, basic assumptions, internal images, and values) from the perspective of a different culture, here is a look at the moral, philosophical, and cultural traditions of the "First Nations", in particular the Lakota Indians.  

In this section, we will describe some of the social practices that are experienced in and around the ritual of the sweat lodge. It is important to be clear that these statements are not based on wise explanations given by the Lakota Chiefs. In the Lakota culture, knowledge is not formulated and passed on in a standardized way as with us, but gained by experience. Much is conveyed gradually, and unconsciously informs thoughts and actions. On the one hand, that means that what is presented here is my own interpretation based on my personal experience. On the other hand, it means that in the Lakota culture, even the simplest practices, have implications for the internal state of the person who performs them. I am convinced that this is not only the way of the Lakota, but the way of everyone everywhere, although we are often no longer aware of it. And that's the lever.  

Provide compensation

Through direct contact with Mother Nature, we, the Lakota, learn strong respect for nature and its elements of fire, water, air and earth. We are not above creation. We are a part of it. If, as part of the ceremony, we take something from nature, we give something back. We sacrifice tobacco or saliva. We give something of ourselves. When we light a fire, we are aware that we are taking away the home of some insects and small animals, and that some of them will be burnt. But we also know that they are sacrificed for a good cause. For this we give thanks, because they are our brothers and sisters, and fire is sacred.  

Leadership is always in relation to others or something else (something that is greater than oneself). Therefore, the basis of all management is to ensure balance, for a good relationship. Give and take, closeness and distance, opening and closure, time for action as well as time for reflection and introspection. A good leader is one who has a sixth sense for these types of compensation. He asks, for example, what comes next (e.g. for my team, for my clients, for my wife, for the world)? What can I contribute? What needs to be said (for better development)? In Management Speak, this sixth sense, this intuitive style of leadership, is called "Situation Sensing". It means to sense the context, to have antennae , to keep channels open, and be able to make small interventions. It might just be a gesture, possibly even something larger, to provide some kind of compensation and move forward in a good direction.

Praying for others and the other

In many rituals, it's not about the self, but about others and something other. Therefore, in the sweat lodge, we ask and pray not for ourselves but for others. We ask and pray for health, love, strength, and energy for someone special - not just anyone, but a person we know, who has a name. We do this in the knowledge that we are fulfilled when others are fulfilled. We have a saying: "What goes around comes around." It makes us strong and cleanses us, if we stop thinking of ourselves and instead do something for others. Things will come back into balance. We are at peace with ourselves and the world. When we step out of the sweat lodge, a new cycle begins. We are reborn. 

By practising this ritual, we learn to serve a cause greater than ourselves. We learn self-discipline and the responsibility of taking on tasks that have been entrusted to carrying out rituals ( for example, collecting stones, cleaning , splitting wood, getting water, covering the wicker frame with horse blankets, and so on.). We do quiet, unemotional, individual work as well as teamwork. 

This act of focusing on others corresponds to a practice of self-management, which many high-flyers use to help teams overcome difficult periods. In this context it is called "Change Focus". It says, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get away from yourself - especially in moments when you no longer know yourself. Focus on others and take care of them." 

Change Focus tell us, Take care! Take care in the sense of "Be careful". "Take care of something," and "Pay attention".  

Very little is required to translate the idea of "Take care" into leadership and the development of a sustainable culture in institutions and organizations. We can implement it directly.

Speak from the heart

While we are in the sweat lodge, we hear what the water-pourer says and prays. We sing old Lakota songs that are also prayers themselves. We experience direct contact with the elements of fire (glowing rocks), water in the form of vapour, air (yes it is in here too!) and earth on which we sit, which gives us a pleasant coolness. Whenever the "door" (the entrance to the sweat lodge) is open, and that happens four times, it is time for a short prayer. We only speak when the door is closed. We speak from the heart, short and strong. We do not give long speeches but try to talk quickly and directly from the place where our emotions are. We close our prayer with a short "Ho!" Meaning "I have spoken." The others reaffirm this also through a common "Ho!". Sometimes a little water is added to the stones. This helps to carry the prayer out of the hut and into the universe. 

As a leader, I must be able to speak from the heart. Not always, but often. This is about openness, and being a channel that leads upwards. I try to be connected with creation as I speak and am not afraid to be vulnerable. "It is through my vulnerability, that I come in contact with others", an internationally-renowned colleague and keynote speaker recently said at a seminar. In this way I become noticeable to others - emotion leads to contact, and genuine relationships.  

According to a study by the University of Hohenheim, in one out of seven company, a manager's lack of communication is ultimately the reason that projects fail. It should be emphasized here that face-to-face communication is becoming more important again. Executives are being asked to be communicators and leaders. Their homework is to interpret goals and objectives, and transform the world of employees and partners.  

The ability to speak from the heart, be in touch, find access to your own emotions are all the real skills of a manager.

Be mindful

When we prepare the ritual, everything we do has meaning. Everywhere there is something to learn. We do not just enter the forest and get what we need. We are very conscious of what we are doing, and provide compensation. We respect each other and grow together as a group because we are sharing a special experience. We pay attention to all that surrounds us - eagles circling in the sky, the four cardinal directions, the wind, our tools, and the children. We are mindful and do not argue in the ritual space. We value real contact with each other, and do not make small talk when the fire is burning. However, we can laugh heartily when someone makes a good joke or says something funny, as long as it is something from the heart. That's always good. 

Mindfulness - Humour - Laughing at yourself - not taking yourself too seriously often leads to success by itself, for example at a sweat lodge ceremony.  

There has already been much research undertaken into and published on the healing effects of humour and shared joy. Coupled with mindfulness, these are both probably the meta-competencies that we must strive for above all, if we want to live a happy, healthy life.

Sympathy and respect

When individual group members push themselves to their physical, emotional or spiritual limits during the ritual, we take an interest. This does not mean, for example, that we immediately rush to this person, take them by the arm and comfort them. We respect and are mindful of the sovereignty of each person in each phase and know that, above all, attention is paid to spiritual and emotional processes and that the person does not have to be "removed". 

According to Dr. Scott Peck, there are recurring phases of community building in groups. The trail leads from the pseudo-community to chaos and creates space for true community. In a nutshell - "Community building first, decision making second." The development of a community is a dynamic process that can be hindered or promoted, but it always runs its course. Genuine care can also mean offering the other quietly, almost in passing, a sip of water, without making a great production out of it. Community education takes place in a completely natural way - beyond artificial team-building events. To be human, to develop as a human, to trust in Mother Nature and to feel the contact can be enough to help.

Keeping order

Rituals like the sweat lodge are thousands of years old. They have retained their power, because they have always been carried out in exactly the same way. Experiencing and participating in the natural order inherent in the ritual has a very practical effect. Order stabilizes the flow. Order creates clarity and simplicity. It starts with the action and ends with the spirit. The mind is calmed and creates space for experiences at other levels. 

"Make things nice" says John Fire Lame Deer; and "Don't mix things up." Since the simplicity and order arises from the power of the ritual itself, we come to understand that we can witness natural beauty without much added thereto.  

As a leader, sometimes you have to step aside and take a look. For many people, this is one of the most difficult lessons of all. But it can be learnt, and gradually come to be trusted. It creates a system without folders. In management it is called self-organization - but it is a completely natural state. Many of these practices are based on the basic assumption and inherent knowledge that we are part of a larger whole. We cannot know everything. We can not control and manage everything well. Humility coupled with awareness of the great mystery is both secure and healthy.

A comparison of the guiding principles and approaches used in "new management"

The guiding principles and approaches used in "new leadership" may be summarized by the terms "Servant Leadership", "Facilitative Leadership" or "Collaborative Leadership". The community, which is to say the public interest, is of first importance, and ultimately the attitude to life is one of service. It is easy to see parallels with the social culture of the Lakota. Here and there it seems that the ancient wisdom has already found its way into the new world.  

Guiding principles which come from this field:  

1. Socially significant and noble goals 

People do not work for shareholder value alone. Simply maximizing prosperity is not sufficient. Considerably more people in the western industrialized nations and especially more young people (Generation Y) want to be sure that their work serves a higher purpose. People need socially-significant and noble goals when it comes to giving their energy and individual strengths without reservation.  

2. Many heads make wiser decisions 

Groups are able to make better decisions than individuals. We need the perceptions of diverse people to be able to take wiser decisions. In intertwined, volatile markets, collaborative, cross-functional systems ("Highly Collaborative Systems") outperform competitive win-lose systems. So-called "Whole Scale" approaches, working with representative focus groups and holistic thinking, is replacing top-down thinking.  

3. Natural hierarchy - shared, changing leadership 

People are not an organizational asset. People are autonomous entities. Therefore any opinion or point of view is valid, and from birth everyone carries a shared responsibility. Therefore, natural competence stands above position and formal hierarchy. In the future, it will be about natural hierarchy and shared, changing leadership. "A leader in every chair!" 

4. Secure containers - be smarter together 

As a leader of the future, how much you know is less important than how much you care. Instead of impersonal visions and decisiveness, what counts instead is the ability to make containers available to others, so that people work together (in collaboration), try out new things (prototyping) and become smarter together (co-creation). The skills of being a good host, being emphatic, and providing safe spaces are some of the most relevant skills for the managers and executives of the future.  

5. From linear to cyclical thinking 

The management and leadership activities of the future will be less linear and less organization-centred. In the future, it will be about connecting with the entire relevant environment. Terms such as "wholeness", "co-creation" or "holistic management" will be important keywords. Being beneficial is crucial in the life-oriented, almost biological principles of life, such as diversity, variance, or trial and error. Management and leadership activities are part of an ongoing, iterative, cyclical process involving the whole of the relevant system with periods of divergence (openness) and convergence (closing).

Summary and outlook

The Lakota show us seemingly simple yet deeply effective social practices that are valuable for life in an industrialized world. These include mindfulness, speaking from the heart, and caring for others. These practices open a person's own intuition and help us in difficult times, for example, during times of passage and transition. Caring helps to create a connection with other people and the greater context in which we act. Ultimately, this is 'Mother Nature' or the 'world community', the 'wholeness', or whatever we want to call it.  

Having humility before the "great mystery", as the Lakota say, is also an appropriate attitude for us , if one considers the present self-critically. It is good and helpful to recognize one's ignorance, rediscover curiosity, and approach both the simple and great questions.  

This could enable us to overcome the true-false paradigm or the we-and-the-other paradigm. "We are all equal," say the Lakota or "Mitakuye Oyasin", a Lakota saying which means something like: "We are connected to everything" or ". We are all related". No vision or opinion counts more than another. Nothing intellectual must be fought over or belittled. In a joint ceremony, such as the sweat lodge, we become aware of these different truths and appreciate them, instead of fighting over them, and a group becomes an organism. This organism does not waste energy differentiating its component parts from each other, but uses all its power to achieve common objectives and thereby stays healthy, or even becomes healthier ("Healthy" in the sense of "Whole").  

This connection with and to the whole can and should be leanrt, experienced, and remembered by the individual, as it is both possible and essential. It awakens who we are, what we have become, and what we are in the process of becoming. Ceremonies such as the sweat lodge focus attneiton on this idea of 'becoming'. This can be stimulated and directed in a such a way that makes a successful life possible. A sweat lodge has been the "Turning Point" for many people. It seems that a considerable amount of ancient wisdom has found its way into the new world. "The Circle Way" for example, is a form of circular conversation that is based on indigenous roots, which has been rediscovered as a way of bringing mindfulness to talks and meetings held in social and organizational contexts. "We are bringing the circle back into the mainstream," say the two initiators, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea.  

That's already brilliant - for our institutions, organizations and our society. Much more is in the making. What is preventing us from living a life where every day is a ceremony, as isevery meeting, and every organization ? All of us could talk more meaningfully about who we are and who we could be.  

Our future rests on us being a part of something bigger. Therefore, it is very important to have the ability to connect to things that are bigger than us, that go beyond our personal agenda and knowledge.  

Walk in beauty.  

Baldwin C., Linnea A. (2010): The Circle Way - A Leader in every chair, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco
Baldwin C., Linnea A. (2014): Circle. Die Kraft des Kreises. Gespräche und Meetings inspirierend, schöpferisch und effektiv gestalten. Beltz-Verlag
Jaworski, J. (1996): Synchronicity - The inner path of Leadership, Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco
Goffee R., Jones G. (2006): Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader, Harvard Business School Press
Hamel, G. (2009): Moon Shots for Management, Harvard Business Review, Februar 2009
Scharmer, C.O. (2009): Theorie U. Von der Zukunft her führen: Prescencing als soziale Technik, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag
Van Gennep, A. (1981): Les rites des passage, (2005) Übergangsriten, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York  

Die beiden von Richard Erdoes zusammen mit John beziehungsweise Archie Fire Lame Deer verfassten Bücher gehören heute zu den Standardwerken über die Ureinwohner Nordamerikas:
John Fire Lame Deer, Richard Erdoes (1972): Lame Deer Seeker of Visions - The Life of a Sioux Medicine Man, Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York
Archie Fire Lame Deer, Richard Erdoes, (1992): Gift of Power. The Life and Teachings of a Lakota Medicine Man, Bear & Company, Santa Fe  

changeX 05.06.2015. Alle Rechte vorbehalten, all rights reserved.


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Holger Scholz

Holger Scholz, geboren 1968, ist Gründer der Kommunikations-lotsen. Er arbeitet als Begleiter und Coach für Menschen, die als Gruppe, Team oder Gesamtorganisation Zukunft gestalten und ihr eigenes Zusammenwirken dabei deutlich weiterentwickeln und letztlich verbessern wollen. Vieles von dem, was Holger Scholz in seiner Arbeit umsetzt, entspringt seiner Ausbildung als Facilitator, gepaart mit persönlichen Erfahrungen mit indianischen Traditionen und Kulturtechniken, mit denen er als 25-Jähriger in Kontakt kam. Mail: Web:

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