Real Leaders

The Lakota Have No Word For “Authority”

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Many people I know follow the principles passed down by the Native American tribe of the Lakotas.  The Lakotas are known for being a very peaceful tribe whose traditions are in many ways a powerful teaching for the future of our planet. In his book, Walking With Grandfather, by the legendary Lakota historian, James Marshall III writes that, “there is no word in the Lakota language for authority,” and they lean away from any of what we might consider commonplace notions of leadership. In fact, the elders have a saying about authority, says Marshall.

“Do you know how to ruin a chief, they say. Give him one follower.”

This notion intrigues me. Our modern western civilization concept of leader is one who has followers. Our concept creates a one up one down relationship between leader and follower that keeps people in a young and immature state. We revere leaders who are charismatic and able to inspire so many others to follow. Paradoxically, conscious leaders don’t want followers. They want people following the dictates of their own heart. Conscious leaders listen to their own heart and follow their own inner compass. And they want others to do the same.

And they make decisions in a different style. Consistent with the Lakota tradition, decisions are often made, not by vote, but through dialogue and deep listening. Among the Lakotas, often a question or a problem is brought to the council of elders who sit and deeply reflect together. The council has no authority. It fulfils its responsibility through the power of its wisdom. It is wisdom that emerges after much dialogue and discourse and if that wisdom resonates, it causes natural action to occur.

There is no standing on authority among the tribal leaders, nor on position power, and certainly not on the basis of threat and consequence. The council (leaders) simply offer their wisdom and guidance and it is accepted or not. In his book, Marshall writes, “the Lakota consider fortitude, generosity, bravery, 

and wisdom to be the four greatest virtues. In any mention of these virtues, wisdom is the last to be named.” It is the greatest of the four virtues and the one most difficult to achieve. It is not given to another, nor earned by appointment.

It is hard won through experience and awareness that wisdom is reflected in its impact on others. Wisdom is the essence of conscious leadership. What if you had no authority based on your role as leader. What if you had no power to hire or fire and that the only thing that caused others to be moved by your leadership was your wisdom and inspiration. How would you fare? This question gets at the source of power for a conscious leader. It is not positional power, nor threat or fear.

The source of power for a conscious leader is personal power. Personal power is the ability to guide, facilitate, and inspire. It requires a leader to have a compelling vision, deep fortitude, conviction, heart, courage, and a firm grasp on reality. It requires character and resolve. This is the stuff upon which great leaders and great companies are made and it is this form of power that is ultimately sustainable.

Interestingly, at the root of the word authority is the word “author.” Conscious leaders are the author of their own lives and they also are writers of the script of the future of their company or organization. They do not stand on the past. Instead, they write the future. They use the tool of imagination and they gain fuel from potentiality as opposed to relying on past success. Their authority is born out of inner strength, as opposed to the use of any other force. Here are some questions to consider as you seek to bring more wisdom to your own leadership:

  1. Where does your authority come from?
  2. How do you use it?
  3. How powerful are you and where are the sources of your power?
  4. Do you wield power like a sword and bludgeon people or do you use it to make a difference – to move people toward a shared and meaningful cause?
  5. What if all your outward power was stripped away? What if you had no power to hire and fire, or promote others? What would you be left with?


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