Barbara Johnson, University of Alaska Fairbanks Ph.D. student in the Resilience and Adaptation Program

“Is the coffee ready?’ Charlene asked me.

“Well…I think so but then I drink cold instant coffee leftover from the day before’.

“No judgement here’ (or something to that effect) was Charlene’s reply as she proceeded to find a better tester to determine whether or not the coffee was palatable.

“No judgement’ is perhaps the best two words summary for the 2017 Circumpolar Indigenous Leadership Symposium, and my hunch is for all the past ones as well.

It was incredible to watch the magic happen. Within a few hours, Professors Cathy Brooks and Charlene Stern and Minto elder, Luke Titus, created a safe space. We were a group of approximately twenty people who barely knew each other and yet we felt comfortable sharing our personal and professional roles, what drives us and what worries us. In other words, we shared our stories and who we are.

This structure highlighted the importance of storywork in leadership, a concept we had previously explored through the readings. While I had no reason to doubt that statement, I did not realize how accurate it was until partaking in the Symposium. When we share a story about ourselves, we inherently share something about ourselves. Which story we share determines how much we share about ourselves, and to paraphrase Professor Brooks…we only get as much as we put in.

Developing personal relationships requires sharing details about oneself.   This was emphasized over and over by our guest speakers, who shared how they developed their leadership techniques over time. All of them spoke about respecting one another, about building relationships and trust.  This concept struck a chord with me as past leadership training I have received emphasized being impersonal, although the actual word used was “professionalism’.   It seemed like professionalism was defined as all leaders needing to follow a standard operating procedure that included, but was not  limited to, hiding one’s personal life and story. Yet true leadership is based on the development of relationships with others, and of oneself.

Besides helping develop relationships, stories are also a great leadership tool as they help to drive home points. This is because, as Professor Brooks said, “we must make it real’.   Concepts and events become more tangible and real  when we can put a face and a name to people who have lived through them or experienced similar things. While statistics allow for comparisons and quick analysis, stories allow for feelings and for the complex range of emotions and reactions that make us human.

More than other places in America, I got a sense that story-sharing is vital to leadership in Alaska. A vast state with a small population, Alaska is also extremely multi-cultural.   Looking around our cohort, it seemed like everyone came from a different cultural background. Far from being a problem, this enriched our discussions and while there were some dissenting opinions, they were always expressed politely and processed respectfully. With different cultures come different ways of doing things and thinking about things. Sometimes these might clash, yet stories allow for the sharing of where one is coming from and the context for a decision or thought.

The myriad of background and experiences brought out countless different examples of leadership. If you asked me to provide a definition of leadership, I would be unable to but what I could say is that leadership comes in many different shapes and forms.   Leaders can be quiet or loud. Leaders can be the ones who speak in front of the group or the ones who approach you one-on-one later on. They can be the ones who bring up the difficult topics, the ones who go first in the sharing circle, the ones who challenge themselves to speak in front of a crowd, or the ones who leave their comfort zone.

Here is one of the take-aways from the Symposium: leaders challenge themselves and they put themselves out there. Leaders take risks, they make calls not knowing whether their decision is the right one, whether there is a right decision to make. They do so respectfully and may not even feel like a leader when they do so. Interestingly, it seemed that oftentimes (if not most of the time) people did not identify as leaders.   Many people spoke about not having a leadership role, and then would act in a way or share a story that made it clear they are in fact a leader.   When I think about my classmates the words “humility’, “leadership’, and “non-judgemental” immediately pop into my mind. And just in case you’re wondering, the coffee was not quite ready.

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