By TEDDYE SNELL
Former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith draws from the past and embraces the future to move from “Point A to Point B” as a leader.
Smith’s book, “Leadership Lessons From The Cherokee Nation,” published by McGraw Hill, explains in detail how he developed a model to move the tribe forward throughout his 12-year tenure.
“Four years ago, I wanted to write this as an employee handbook,” said Smith. “What we found is we needed to streamline a philosophy for running our government, which included over 150 different products and services. And I recalled what [full-blood Cherokee traditionalist] Benny Smith said to me at my inauguration in 1999: ‘Be a student of the Cherokee people and nation,’ or learn from all I observe.”
Smith pointed out that given the number and diversity of the tribe’s interests, he would need an overarching concept of management.
“You can’t run a marshal service the way you run a hospital, and you can’t run a school the way you run an aerospace company,” said Smith. “So, I took Benny’s words very seriously; we simply needed to look at our history to gain clarity about where we wanted to go. We concluded our design purpose was to be a happy, healthy people. It’s important to get from A to B in 10 words or less.”
Smith said it was easier for the tribe’s employees to envision “Point B,” which created a measuring stick for successes along the way.
Between 1999 and 2011, the Cherokee Nation added more than 5,000 jobs, its health care system grew from $18 million to $310 million, and its assets increased from $150 to $1.2 billion.
Smith said the biggest problem the tribe faced was moving from a political machine to being a “change agent” organization.
“You build a nation by hiring people who become assets and move you forward toward your vision; you build a political machine by hiring cronies as political favors,” said Smith. “To move a nation forward, you have to have every single person become a leader. You follow someone, and someone follows you, etc. I don’t think there’s a single college graduate out there who ever planned to become a meth addict. But they yield their decision-making to others and give up their responsibilities. You cannot do that and lead.”
During one of the many group meetings Smith held during his administration, he asked people to come up with a single word that could define a Cherokee who is successful, intelligent, has a promising career and a loving family, and makes contributions to the community.
“The word they came up with is ‘mature,’” said Smith. “As we mature, we become better leaders. Nations should mature, and their leaders should look more to becoming statesmen. The vision should be 100 years down the road.”
Smith believes the tribe’s success all comes back to developing leaders within the government.
“The success of the Immersion School, the addition of 5,000 employees and growing to the largest Indian health care system in the country all can be attributed to recruiting and developing leaders who will take you where you want to go. The nicest compliment I have ever been paid was from a young woman who read my book and said, ‘I forgot where my Point B was, but after reading your book, I will not be distracted again.’”
Smith said the model outlined in the book can be used in businesses, schools, and nonprofits, as well as in formulating a personal philosophy.
In the future, Smith would like to develop a career vision center for youth, and with that goal in mind, he’s been studying digital culture and its effect on children.
“You don’t have to be a politician to be a leader. The project I want to see is a career vision center. My generation’s attention span is about 7-1/2 minutes, or the time between television commercials,” said Smith. “My 20-year-old son’s is about 2 minutes, or the length of a music video. Children today have the attention span the length of a text message. They aren’t being taught discernment; they learn from the intensity of the message and its repetition.”
Which is not to say Smith doesn’t see potential, only that he would like to see that potential developed to its fullest.
“I visit classrooms today and see future rocket scientists, physical therapists, speech pathologists and the like; the children are so intelligent,” said Smith. “What I don’t want to see is that potential being used to build pole barns.”
Smith’s vision will include a bricks-and-mortar site with 200 exhibits and kiosks that help students realize their strengths and guide them toward career paths that capitalize on those strengths.
“I want to have it in a language the kids can understand, to show them what they can become,” said Smith.