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Indigenous leadership lessons for the outdoor industry

Four lessons everyone in the office can benefit from.


Phil Jackson, the former basketball star, is considered among the best coaches of all time: To this day, he holds the record for the most championship wins in NBA history (11). Over the years, when questioned about his success as a coach, Jackson has often credited Native American culture—and specifically his time spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—for helping shape his leadership style. But what exactly are the leadership qualities he learned from the Lakota? And how might they apply to leaders in the outdoor industry?

To find out, we asked Phillip Scott, who has walked the Native path for more than 40 years and directs Ancestral Voice: Institute for Indigenous Lifeways, in Northern California. Of mixed ancestry, Scott is a veteran Sundancer, a traditional healer, and a ceremonial leader in the Lakota tradition as well as the Native American Church. Scott has been entrusted by elders from several Indigenous traditions to share wisdom and medicine practices with the contemporary world.

Lesson 1: Think circular, not top-down

In Indigenous traditions, leadership isn’t based on a hierarchy but rather a hoop, or a web of relationships that holds everyone and everything, from those working the retail front lines to the factory lines overseas.

smiling man in brown brimmed hat and vest
Phillip Scott believes outdoor industry leaders can learn from Indigenous ways.Courtesy

“In a hoop, we’re all equally distant from the center, so there’s no one at the top who is barking commands or orders,” says Scott. “Indigenous governance is not based upon democracy, it’s based upon consensus.” He adds that since many Indigenous cultures are matrilineal and honour and respect the feminine, it’s especially important for women to be involved in all decision-making processes.

Scott acknowledges that a big company getting consensus from hundreds of employees isn’t exactly realistic, let alone conducive to getting things done. Still, the concept of a hoop, he says, can scale. Says Scott, “What that means is that the CEO, for example, is going to trust their executives and managers of other departments, who in turn have their fingers on the pulse of the people they are representing.”

Once the CEO listens to and talks to their core team—deep listening is crucial to good leadership—they’re able to then render a decision that’s in the greatest good for the largest number of people. Thus, from big marketing campaigns to production overhauls, no decision is siloed and the effect on all individuals is considered.

Lesson 2: Transparency is key

The circular system of governance, outlined above, doesn’t work without transparency. “In leadership, there needs to be transparency,” says Scott. “Rather than deceiving the people, a leader should be open, transparent, and accountable.”

That means being explicit about things like company finances, supply chain, hiring practices (including how you determine salaries, raises, and bonuses), DEI and sustainability efforts, and where you’re banking. Today’s consumers expect complete transparency from the companies they support and your employees are no different (there’s also a ton of evidence that transparency will help your bottom line).

Indigenous cultures also believe that all leaders are human and will stumble in the course of their service. So to remain accessible and transparent, a good leader must also be humble. “They should constantly be tracking themselves, including their blunders, and acknowledging them,” says Scott.

Scott also emphasizes that Indigenous leaders are highly visible and personable—never giving the impression of inhabiting an ivory tower. In that vein, if you never share personal anecdotes when speaking, if you don’t join in on Slack conversations regularly, or rarely attend company socials, then you’re falling short as a leader.

“It shouldn’t just be about stocks and money,” says Scott. “It should be about humanity and the love of the people that you’re serving.”

Lesson 3: We are all related

“If we look at Indigenous origin stories, people on this planet were the last beings created, not the first,” says Scott. “Therefore, Indigenous cultures look to their elders for wisdom, guidance, and how we might walk in balance.”

Our elders include the spirits, the elements, viruses and bacteria, the plant kingdom, and the animal kingdom. It goes back to thinking circularly: “The Indigenous way of life is based on the Sacred Hoop of Life,” says Scott. “It’s a circle and everything is connected.” This way of life is represented in the Lakota saying Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, which means ‘all my relations’ and ‘we are all related.’

How does this perspective apply to the corporate structure? “If we understand that we are all related—accepting the fundamental interconnectivity of all of creation—then our actions will reflect our desire to protect all life and all beings on earth,” says Scott.

Take the example of packaging: “A lot of the merchandise in the outdoor industry bothers me,” says Scott. “Everything is wrapped in plastic and our oceans are choking in it. If the industry is to truly walk the talk of environmental awareness, it must harness human ingenuity and creativity to create packaging that is biodegradable or earth-friendly, versus perpetuating the problem of pollution.”

We’re an industry that plays a lot of lip service to greening our supply chains and cutting down on waste, but all that talk means nothing if we don’t align our actions with our words. Good leaders, above all, are always true to their word. They also always consider future generations: “Corporations tend to think in terms of decades rather than centuries, but Indigenous people, we’re thinking in terms of seven generations,” says Scott. “So we need a 700-year plan.”

Lesson 4: Leading with heart

“A leader needs to respond from a place of centeredness and sobriety,” says Scott. “That means not getting intoxicated by the drama of a certain situation or the potential internal trauma that it might trigger.”

When someone says something inappropriate to you, or an employee drops the ball on a big project, Scott says take a deep breath before you respond. Assess the situation, download all the information available to you, and then act from your heart to remedy the situation. A good leader understands that there’s something to be learned from all situations, favorable and unfavorable alike.

In the Western world, we tend to emphasize the mind, meaning that when we make decisions, we use it to guide our actions. That doesn’t jive with Indigenous wisdom though. “Indigenous peoples understand that in addition to mind, we are composed of body, heart, and spirit, ” says Scott. “And if we don’t cultivate these other three aspects then they’re going to atrophy.”

A good leader should thus maintain a spiritual practice to stay connected to their internal compass, the heart (Phil Jackson, in addition to Native American spiritual beliefs, practiced elements of Zen Buddhism). Taking time to connect to nature should go hand in hand with things like meditation, ritual, and even prayer. Not only can a spiritual practice help shrink the ego, but it allows one to cultivate a relationship and seek guidance from the unseen forces that underlie everything.

Want to learn more? Phillip Scott offers an “Ancient Ways of Leadership” Intensive—contact him at phillip@ancestralvoice.org