An Indigenous Perspective on Women Leadership: An Example for Higher Education

By Jacobs, Don; Witt, Judy | Advancing Women in Leadership, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

An Indigenous Perspective on Women Leadership: An Example for Higher Education


Jacobs, Don, Witt, Judy, Advancing Women in Leadership


An Indigenous Perspective on Women Leadership: An Example for Higher Education

Fielding Graduate University, founded in 1974, offers distributed graduate education and research programs in three social science areas: psychology, human and organizational development, and educational leadership. All three schools affirm a commitment to social change and social justice. The Educational Leadership and Change (ELC) doctoral program was developed in 1996 as a way to influence educational reform and to make doctoral education accessible to working adults, especially those from underserved communities. During its development, the program struggled and faltered as it tried to establish its identity and work toward its goals. After an abrupt change in leadership, two women emerged to form a co-dean leadership team: Susan Tiara, Ph.D. and Judy Witt, Ph.D. Looking for a model that emphasized relationships and a more global outlook, they adopted Total Transformational Management Process (Mink, Esterhuysen, Mink, & Owen, 1993) as the conceptual framework for ELC's governance. Based on action research processes, TTMP utilizes an inclusive model for change that emphasizes the system, "paying special attention to the human side" (p. 11). TTMP was instrumental in developing ELC's way of simultaneously working at the individual, group, and organizational levels and in seeing participatory action research (Park, 1992, 1993) as "transformation concomitant with intense learning" (Mink, et al., 1993, p. 11). Considering the complexity of Fielding's dispersed learning environment, such a transformational priority in leadership, communication, and decision-making became a critical priority for both Fielding and ELC.

Although it is interesting to note that in 2003 Fielding ranked number one (right alongside Oklahoma State University) in graduating more American Indian doctorates than any university in the United States ("Top 100 degree producers," 2003, p.73), neither indigenous people nor indigenous philosophy per se were involved in ELC's early development. However, the natural power and vision of the "feminine principle of leadership" that has long been recognized and honored by indigenous people seems to inform ELC's work. Armstrong defines this principle as being

...essential to our vision of healthy equality-seeking organizations...sharing power, authority and decision-making...(where) leaders work from a vision of shared power, providing opportunities for all members to develop and use their leadership skills. (2005, p.1)

For thousands of years indigenous people have understood this vital role of women in guiding and maintaining healthy societies and egalitarian relationships. Women have largely carried forth the values of their cultures. Their creative and courageous ability to adapt to new conditions continues to renew community traditions throughout tribal life (Medicine & Albers, 1983). Unfortunately, this role of women has largely been ignored in most social, historical, or anthropological studies of Native America. Barbara Alice Mann, a Seneca scholar and author, points out this fact in her chapter for Unlearning the Language of Conquest entitled, "Where Are Your Women? Missing in Action:"

In the twenty-first century, it is incumbent upon (especially Native American) scholars to rectify the western obliteration of women from the record, surely the most unconscionable of the many misrepresentations that have been foisted upon Native America by Euro-America. (in press)

Using Dr. Mann's chapter in part to help identify eight traditional leadership skills/concepts used by indigenous women, this article attempts to show how similar female leadership principles are employed in ELC. It is important to note that ELC has not attained all of its goals, but is a work in progress. Nonetheless, both its successes and its goals are operational models for what can be and for how institutions can return to the wisdom embedded in the indigenous worldview. …

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