Co-written by: Mike Rowlands and Denise Williams
In her extraordinary autobiography, Becoming, Michelle Obama describes a mindset that helped her family maintain equilibrium amid the extraordinary scope and complexity of their time in the White House: “Stand in the present, with feet pointed toward progress.”
It’s a striking duality—simultaneously to accept things as they are, while striving to make things better. It bridges patience and urgency. It smacks of wisdom—knowledge and principles learned across the expanse of time and passed from generation to generation. In fact, Obama frequently reflects throughout the book on previous generations’ influence on her way of seeing the world.
In some ways, her philosophy reflects Indigenous ways of knowing, being and seeing. Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly elders and those in positions of leadership, strike the balance between standing on the shoulders of previous generations while carrying the weight of our responsibilities as ancestors to future generations.
For many, this is a striking departure from the frequently self-centric immediacy of western cultures. In the breakneck pace of contemporary life, when fake news whistles around the world at the speed of light and false prophets continue to fragment societies, can we remember to listen to the answers we already know? The answers we’ve always known?
Learning Across Difference
We co-write this post from distinct perspectives—friends with quite different lived experiences and worldviews.
Denise is a mixed heritage woman who was raised between Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island. Denise’s father is from Cowichan Tribes and a residential school survivor with a complicated relationship to his family and community. Her mother is a first generation Canadian, an immigrant from Scotland/England, that shares an equally complicated relationship to her family, place and identity. As an only child and raised without connection to either side of her extended family, Denise found herself quite isolated in trying to understand her own identity, purpose and belonging in life.
Through the journey of understanding where she came from and who she is, Denise has become deeply involved in her social impact community in Vancouver. Finding meaningful connection with so many people and sharing in the good work happening to make this world a better place, Denise found her place as servant leader, an advocate, and a bridge builder. Living a life of service, as a mixed heritage woman, means living a conversation of reconciliation within herself on a daily basis. This journey, a process of discovery and finding real love for people and place, has given Denise not only an identity but a true connection to her ancestors and future generations.
Mike immigrated to Canada with his parents and younger sister when he was 10 years old. Departing the UK, they left behind his grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, seeking opportunities his parents saw in Vancouver. Like Michelle Obama, he grew up in a loving and nurturing home; unlike Obama, he no longer had the intimate, daily connection to family elders.
As a student of (largely) western philosophy, Mike for many years focused on ideas, rather than direct relationships. This is so typical of western learning—to abstract from subjective, lived experience, making all thought ‘scientific,’ making frequently artificial distinctions between the myriad connections of a living world. His own ongoing intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual journey has lead him to study numerous traditions, opening his eyes to different ways of knowing, and finding lessons that have begun to inform the various facets of his work.
As our worlds collide we find ourselves asking how our worldviews coincide. How might they be in conflict? How might they be complementary? And how does asking these questions and navigating the complexities of their truths contribute to our collective development as leaders or “experts?” As two people who both lost a desired connection to family and elders, and who had to seek that out by exploring cultures that weren’t given to us growing up, we wanted to find out.
Expertise and Eldership
In western tradition, ‘expertise’ often associates with academic learning. An expert is one who holds deep knowledge of a given subject matter and by virtue of that knowledge is upheld as one to be consulted on relevant topics. They may uphold a tradition of knowledge, building on it through study, reflection, dialogue, and publication. This is good and valuable.
Eldership is similar. Elders may have taken many years to earn their knowledge and they are appreciated and honoured for that learning. This, too, is good and valuable. Yet there’s a quality in our understanding of eldership that extends beyond mere expertise: elders are more fully understood as wisdom keepers. Their knowledge is inseparable from their appreciation of its application—and the potential consequences on community, generations to come, spirit, and the natural world, from which it is absurd to separate humanity.
In many Indigenous communities, people look for the traits of elders recently passed on in young children. There is a belief that certain knowledge and wisdom can be inherited and held in genes waiting to be woken through rites of passage and lived experience. In this sense we are our own ancestors. The decisions we make today not only impact our grandchildren’s grandchildren, but perhaps even versions of ourselves reappearing throughout time and across the human, natural and spirit worlds.
It is from this worldview, that everything is interconnected, and from this worldview comes the Indigenous responsibility to steward our territories. Western thought tends to make artificial distinctions between the myriad connections of a living world. It likes to break things down into component parts so each part can be understood in detail. But can one really learn all there is to know about a tree without understanding the ecosystem in which it stands? Can one really learn all there is to know about a life well lived without understanding history, spirituality and love? How well is western thought equipped to address the mystical complexities of the universe?
The Leadership We Need
Many thoughtful writers are noticing and calling out the cultural rifts that seem to be deepening in the western world. The news headlines are filled with ‘the fight over Brexit’ or for a border wall, recrimination and even hatred across political divides, and so on. Many in positions of authority are calling for a renewal of morality. But what does this mean? And on the basis of whose morality should actions be judged?
We need leaders today who recognize the tangled complexities of social injustice, the climate crisis, and the entanglements of a complex web of cultures and ecosystems. And we need leaders who can, at the same time, appreciate the particular view of each individual—who exhibit the compassion and equanimity that emerges not from intelligence, study, or ‘expertise,’ but from eldership.
In the fullness of time—across the seven generations that stand behind us and the seven generations to come—complexities have a way of disentangling, though they inevitably will reform as new challenges. We need leaders who can hold communities and cultures to right action in service of a greater whole that many have neither the capacity nor privilege of time to see.
What lessons for Leadership from Eldership?
Share your knowledge. Hold it well, because you’ve earned it; but also hold it lightly, because lifelong learning calls us to renew continually that which we believe we know. Be generous to others so that they may learn of your experience—and you of theirs. This is one path to forge the connections and shared understanding that bridge difference.
Maintain your compassion. To hold what you know with confidence while also questioning and continuing to learn can of course be a hard balance. Carry yourself with compassion—for yourself and for others. None of us is without flaw and none of us leads a life free of mistakes!
Exercise patience. At the pace of work these days, so many of us have a tendency to prioritize decisiveness: ‘It’s better to act than to talk about it.’ It’s easy to slip into that mindset; surely, you’ve seen it in others and perhaps in yourself? However, it’s also been said that “time is a colonial construct.” So is urgency. So slow down. Breathe. Make decisions not from a place of urgency, but from a place of wisdom. Put another way, as a friend of ours likes to say, “move at the pace of trust.”
Respect everyone and everything, including yourself. Many Indigenous cultures are built around respect for all living things. Treat everyone how you want to be treated is a cliché for a reason. It’s simple wisdom that is very easily forgotten in the heat of a moment. We, as leaders, can also forget to show respect to ourselves by taking the time for self-care, to rejuvenate our energy so that it does not compromise our efforts.
Finally, honour the responsibilities you carry. As a leader, your voice carries weight. Your actions more so. Be insistent and uncompromising in pursuit of that which you know to be right and beneficial. But at the same time, reflect always on the lessons of our ancestors and the wisdom they have passed down. Don’t lose sight of that fullness in the vivid brightness of today. You too are an ancestor to generations to come…. Carry yourself wisely.
Denise Williams is the CEO of First Nations Technology Council, and a member of the Board of Directors at Hollyhock. She is a committed contributor to initiatives and organizations that influence real change and the advancement of truth and reconciliation.
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion Strategy, and the newly appointed Chair of Hollyhock’s Board of Directors. As a long-time student of philosophy, he’s committed both to understanding and appreciating our contemporary moment, while working across differences to advance social and environmental progress.