DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Unwavering Resolve

Written by: on September 19, 2014

Almost exactly a year ago, I took a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. I went there to begin my research on an organization that taught “ServantLeadership” curriculum in several international universities. My mission was to discover how the teaching of the curriculum was impacting the university and the community around the school. The training had been going on for several years, so I assumed that there would be plenty of information to gather and evaluate. To my surprise, what I discovered was a large group of people, both faculty and students, who were disillusioned, discouraged, and confused. You see, although the curriculum was fine in theory, it did not transfer into practice – not with the leadership of the university, and not with the leadership of the organization I was there to research. Talk is easy; application is another thing altogether. So I too came home disillusioned, discouraged, and confused. And it was only a few days later that Kiev burst into chaos. Ukraine’s national leadership was exposed for what it really was, corrupt and disingenuous. And then the country was plunged into civil war and is still making headlines a year later.

Leadership. This is a loaded word. One’s definition all depends on one’s experience. For those who have worked with good leaders, the term brings warm-fuzzy feelings. For those who have experienced poor leaders, the word triggers painful memories and negative feelings. In this week’s reading, Jim Collins adds his input into the leadership conversation. His work is based of solid, thoughtful research. Collins coins a new term, what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” I am not so sure I like the term, but I do like what his research uncovered, particularly what I see as balance in his work. After my disillusionment with “servant-leadership” theory, I was heartened by Collins’ input:

It is very important to grasp that Level 5 Leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, and almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.

Indeed, we debated for a long time on the research team about how to describe the good-to-great leaders. Initially, we penciled in terms like “selfless executive” and “servant leader.” But members of the team violently objected to these characterizations.

“Those labels don’t ring true,” said Anthony Chirikos. “It makes them sound weak or meek, but that’s not at all the way I think of Darwin Smith of Coleman Mockler. They would do almost anything to make the company great.”

Then Eve Li suggested, “Why don’t we just call them Level 5 leaders? If we put a label like ‘selfless’ or ‘servant’ on them, people will get entirely the wrong idea. We need to get people to engage with the whole concept, to see both sides of the coin. If you only get the humility side, you miss the whole idea.”[1]

I am all for humility and servant-heartedness, but I also believe in the values of commitment and decisiveness, what Collins refers to as “unwavering resolve.”


In the Ukraine, a former Soviet state, the phrase “servant leadership” is not easily translated into Ukrainian. It is misunderstood. As Collins stated, it feels like weakness. And weakness is not tolerated well in an Eastern European setting. Even my translator was puzzled by how to translate the concepts. Recently, she left the university and the servant-leadership organization, looking for a healthier workplace. I don’t blame her. I left too, to look for a better subject to research. And, through the help of my advisor, I changed my research topic at the end of 2013 to Traditional Native-American Leadership Practices. To my surprise, a lot of what Jim Collins speaks about in his book is true of Native leadership.

Traditional Native-American Leadership is much more about practice than about theory. In an interesting article on the contrast between Western and Native leadership styles,[2] Miles Bryant points out that Native leaders have several values and practices that might seem odd to the Western mind (at least to an American leader’s mind). These particular values/practices are as follows:

  • Decentralization of Leadership
  • The Recognition of the Immanent Value of All Things
  • Noninterference
  • Self-deflection
  • A Reduced Sense of the Importance of Time
  • A Collectivist Decision-Making Approach

In tribal settings, everyone’s voice matters, not only those of the elders (although they are most valued) but also those of the young. Leadership is decentralized. People in the tribe are allowed to make their own mistakes. And, decisions are made collectively. Every voice is heard and valued. This is not an easy way to lead or to make decisions, but it is a way that worked for many tribal peoples.

In his book, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, Taiaiake Alfred offers several qualities that are attributed to healthy Native leaders:[3]

  • They draw on their own personal resources as sources of power. They do not give other people’s money away to gain support. They are very productive, they are generous, and their values are not materialist.
  • They set the example. They assume the responsibility of going first and taking the greatest risk for the good of the community.
  • They are modest and funny. They minimize personality conflict and use humor to deflect anger.
  • They are role models. They take responsibility for children, and they realize the educative and empowering role of government in the community.

These descriptions of leadership are a far cry from what I experienced in Kiev. These are invaluable qualities for leaders, virtues that give me hope, even as Collin’s book did for me this week.

In Chapter four of Good to Great, Collins speaks about the importance of confronting the facts, which of course necessitates a willingness to hear the truth – whatever it might be. But how does one create a climate where the truth is heard? Collins offers four suggestions:[4]

  1. Lead with questions, not answers.
  2. Engage in dialog and debate, not coercion.
  3. Conduct autopsies, without blame.
  4. Build “red flag” mechanisms.

These suggestions open up leaders to listen, not merely to tell. They also force leaders to be realists, rather than empty-headed optimists. And, leaders who are willing to hear the truth are those who will likely stay humble, while at the same time be unwaveringly resolved to lead their organizations down the path of greatness.

Leaders can hurt or help an organization, a church, a business, or an institution of higher education. Frankly, my experience has made me almost want to run away from all leaders. But the reality is that each of us is a leader, whether we like it or not. But it is not only what I believe about leadership is that matters; it is what I do with what I believe. Talk is cheap. Actions are valuable. May we learn from Collins and from others in such a way that we practice what we preach.


[1] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001) 30.

[2] Miles Bryant, “Contrasting American and Native Views of Leadership” (Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the University Council for Educational Administration, Louisville, KY, October 25-27, 1996) 10.

[3] Taiaiake Alfred. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 90.

[4] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001) 74-80.

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

11 responses to “Unwavering Resolve”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    What a fantastic post, Bill. I am fascinated with your personal journey of learning from Kiev (I remember how you were excited for this trip last year as we met in London), and how you’ve changed your focus to the Native-American focus. I cannot wait to talk with you about this in Cape Town, as I am very interested to learn more about these leadership qualities you are discovering. From my work in South Dakota, I have a lot of questions. The qualities you list (including drawing from personal power, modesty and funny, set examples, and being a role model) all carry a personal responsibility to embody leadership. It would require a full commitment in all areas of life to be this kind of leader. However, many of the deepest problems I find on the Reservation seem to be a result of the lack of these qualities, especially among men, who today feel personally powerless, whose lives are not setting good examples (alcoholism, drug abuse, abuse, unemployment), and their a deep sadness and hopelessness. I am curious from your research, how wide spread is the practice of these qualities in leaders today on the Reservations? I find (from my limited experience) that there are many more Native-American women who practice these then men. Have you experienced this? I am very curious to know more about what you think on these issues, because if these are “traditional” qualities of leadership for Native-Americans, then it seems here might be a great place to re-teach and encourage our friends to be true to their own values. Thanks for your very thoughtful blog.

    • John,

      Thanks for your encouraging reply. I am a novice at these things; you probably know more than I since I am primarily just in my literature review now. I have a lot to learn about traditional native leadership. Hopefully, some of these principles and practices will be revitalized in the future. That would be a great thing. The three authors who touched me the most over the past year are John Mohawk, Taiaiake Alfred, and Kent Nerburn. If you ever want to read a great book, get “Neither Wolf nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn. It will challenge and encourage you.

      I look forward to seeing you soon, my friend.

  2. mm Dave Young says:

    Great article, very insightful. I’d heard good things about the good to great book but hadn’t read it yet, it sounds like a good read. I look forward to meeting you.

    Dave LPG5

    • Dave,

      Thanks for your reply. My cohort and I look forward to meeting you soon in Cape Town. I hope your program is going well. You will love it. I assure you that it will change your life. See you next week. — Bill, LGP4

  3. Bill…
    Thank you for writing about your trip and experience in Kiev. I remember your discouragement and affirm your resilience (see Julie’s post :). Resilience is a key leadership trait (and a character trait), one I see demonstrated in you. Your post makes me wonder about the cultural context of leadership … especially if a country has been formed and framed without a core leadership model. I am so looking forward to what we will see and hear modeled for us in Cape Town…. Safe travels! See you next week. 🙂

    • Carol, thanks for your comments. Your comments on resilience are very helpful. I will read Julie’s post next.

      As I said to John, I am a novice at this concept of traditional native leadership. I am finding limited writing on the subject and I have not done that many interviews yet, so I don’t have a lot to say at this point. But I do hope that the little I do say will be helpful and add to the leadership conversation. I look forward to see you and everyone else soon.

  4. Ashley says:

    Bill, I had often wondered what exactly happened in Kiev! Last year over pints, you were so excited about the trip, and we were never able to chat more in detail about the results. This makes me even more excited about the turn life has taken you into Native American research! You are a leader, Bill, and your thoughtfulness is something each of us admire and wish to imitate. I loved the four qualities you pulled from the Manifesto book. Have you been able to meet with folks who live these qualities? SEE YOU SOON!!!

    • Ashley, I am look forward to more conversations over pints in Cape Town. I have so much to learn and am now loving my research topic. The Ukrainian food shut solidly. I had no idea that I would take this new direction. I am still surprised that this is the direction I am taking.

      Thanks for your kind comments. I do feel that I am a leader, but I understand both the temptation and the difficulty that such a calling can bring, so I am slow to get On this boat. Leadership, I am discovering, has a lot more to do with “doing” than with “talking.” It is scary to me that so many people have all the correct lingo and answers about leadership, but then they turn around and act completely the opposite of what they say and know. I would rather not be a leader at all than to be a hypocritical one. God save the Queen — and all leaders!

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    Appreciate your post.
    I strongly believe in a flattened, non-hierarchical approach to leadership.
    That is, I mostly believe in this.
    I resonate with the qualities of Indigenous/Native leadership that you note in your post.
    However, I think it is important to note that even in midst of a primarily consensus-style model of organizational leadership…someone bears the responsibility of seeing the process through in the end — of course, ideally they carry it WITH and ON BEHALF of the people, but still they are its representative and/or its representative voice.
    Certain people have certain roles at certain times.
    If one is truly interested in attempting to facilitate equal access/voice, then I think that this is tricky to navigate all-around, whether it is with tribally societies organized along this model, religious organizations (such as Quaker meetings or Bruderhof communities, etc.), or other business organizations.
    I have found myself having encountered both exceptionally hierarchical models and eminently flattened models
    of organizational structure. Personally, my preference for the long-term play comes down to a primarily flattened, communicationally inclusive model with an option for streamlined decision-making given as much purview as can be “safely” allowed — with the understanding that even such streamlined decision-making can be subject to review with enough concern noted.
    Anyhow, a couple of sources that I’ve found helpful outside the direct arena that you’ve been looking at are Robert Putnam’s work around the idea of interconnected, flattened, free-flowing, networked societies (he’s got a lot on this) and John Francis Burke’s Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders and John Paul Lederach’s & Lisa Schirich’s works from more Mennonite backgrounds.
    It certainly seems that the more people’s voices are unheard, the more people feel disempowered, marginalized, taken advantage of, etc., the more likely it becomes that violent conflict erupts and/or significant system/society dilemmas on any numbers of fronts manifest.
    How do we best include voice and allow for full participation while also not allowing organizational work to bog-down into a cacophonic miasma of inertia based on the very best of initial intentions?

    • Clint,

      Thank you for your insightful comments — and for the references. I appreciate these very much.

      Yes, I have thought about this and do not have a good answer for the consensus-based leadership approach. There are flaws with every leadership system. Remember, I am a novice in these studies, so I lack the depth at this time to respond profoundly. But what I can say right now is that at least in the research I am doing, what I have discovered is that there is always one or more who do take responsibility for the decisions made. I just don’t know exactly how that works yet. I do know that leaders changed in traditional tribal situations, depending on what was being discussed and decided. If someone knew more than others on an issue, then he (or she) would stand up and lead. It was not about position as much as it was about wisdom and experience. But as far as decision making went, I am still figuring that out. Let’s sit down and chat about these matters in Cape Town. I look forward to seeing you soon.

      Thanks again for your input. I have a lot to learn.

  6. Hey Bill,

    Great information on the Native leadership qualities. There is much to learn from the Natives. I wonder how the American Native compare in leadership with other aboriginal people of say, Australia.

    It seems to me that a relational people naturally gravitate to these principles but a stoic rational people seem to struggle with humility and modesty. Did you find this to be true with the Ukraine leadership?

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