Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders

Reflections of a Young Tribal Leader

Alvin Warren

Nonprofit organizations face a growing challenge of identifying sufficient numbers of future leaders and passing on leadership responsibilities. For a story about the needs of emerging leaders, we approached Alvin Warren, a young tribal leader and lieutenant governor of Santa Clara Pueblo, who played a seminal role in his Pueblo's success at recovering part of its ancestral land. Many funders who are concerned about the challenge of developing future leaders are addressing it by supporting workshops, training, and coaching. Warren's story illustrates other important lessons about leadership development: young leaders succeed best when given increasingly complex leadership opportunities, and existing leaders need to be prepared to gradually yield power and positions of authority while continuing to cultivate and support these future leaders.

Leaders have a tremendous ability—and profound responsibility—to cultivate the next generation of leaders. How well we do this will determine how successfully others will lead our organizations in the future. Philanthropic and nonprofit leaders have become increasingly concerned about leadership transitions due to natural reticence compounded by recent alarming studies. As a result, many are now seeking guidance in how to ensure such transitions are successful, including taking advantage of the growing field of “Executive Transition Management” services. Viewing the countless studies that have been done on this subject, it can sometimes be forgotten that leadership is inherently a personal experience. Perhaps for this reason, the conveners of the 2007 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference asked me, as a young tribal leader, to discuss what inspired me to become a leader, how I learned what I needed to know, what systems supported me, and what is needed by the next generation of leaders. In reflecting on these questions I have found that, for me, leadership has been a journey clearly marked with “leadership crossroads.” At these junctures, established leaders consciously chose to take specific actions that provided me with the knowledge, inspiration, and support to become a better leader. The five of these “Leadership Actions” I share in this article have a clear composite message: as today's leaders your actions can have far-reaching influence on those who follow you, so be thoughtful and deliberate in how you teach, challenge, inspire, and support future leaders.

The Challenge of Leadership Transitions

It comes as no surprise that leaders are concerned about those who will assume leadership after them. We have devoted many years, if not decades, to building our organizations and programs, to establishing strategic relationships, to making concrete progress toward fulfilling our organizations' missions and our own personal goals. Often, this has come with significant personal sacrifice. Having diligently sought to confront problems that sometimes cannot be resolved within our lifetimes, we vigorously cling to the belief that the inroads and improvements we have made will outlive us. Delegating and ultimately yielding leadership to the next generation logically raises fears that prior efforts could be undermined, that initiatives may falter or fall short of their potential, even that organizations may lose their relevance or cease operating altogether.

For nonprofit leaders, these intrinsic concerns are heightened by what has recently been described as an impen- ding leadership crisis. According to a study in 2000 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 85 percent of the executives of 130 nonprofit organizations funded by the foundation expected to leave their positions by 2007. The foundation conducted another survey in 2004, of 2,200 nonprofit organizations. That survey found that, by 2009, 65 percent anticipated a transition in leadership. Similarly, 45 percent of executives in New York City-based organizations funded by the United Way indicated that by 2009 they would be leaving their positions. Studies by CompassPoint and the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations have confirmed these findings. They have also found that many of those leaving these positions would not take on similar nonprofit leadership positions in the future. Now, factoring in that the generation following the baby boomers is significantly smaller, fears of a nonprofit leadership collapse seem justified.

Nevertheless, leadership transitions will (and should) happen. We are guaranteed at least one thing in this life, and that is that we will not live forever. So, for as long as there have been leaders, there have been transitions in leadership. It is in some part an unavoidable attribute of our humanity that leads us to be overly concerned with our personal legacies. The great works of our lives, though meaningful and potentially consequential, are ultimately only small fibers in the vast tapestry of human history. From a broader perspective, each generation of leaders necessarily builds upon the achievements of previous generations. In that sense, perhaps the greatest purpose and achievement of leadership may be in how well it prepares and supports the next generation of leaders.

This was well known to the ancestors of Khap'o Owingeh (Santa Clara Pueblo), a federally recognized tribe in northern New Mexico that has maintained its intricate Tewa language and culture for millennia. The society they have handed down to us is one that values and expects the sharing of leadership responsibility among its members. As tribal members, from the time we are young we are taught that one day it will be our turn to bear responsibility for our community. We are repeatedly given advice and encouraged to learn from those who are older so that when our time comes to help our people we are prepared to do our best.

Our governance is only one example of this philosophy. Each year individuals from our Pueblo are elected or appointed to fill a number of tribal offices. One day you are a custodian; the next day you may become the governor. You may end the year a college professor and find yourself a tribal councilmember in the new year. Year after year, century after century, an entirely new group of individuals may be called upon to carry these duties. Knowing that our lifetimes are finite, and appreciating that different approaches to leadership only strengthen the collective well-being of our community, our ancestors ensured that the exercise of present leadership is deeply imbued with the obligation to prepare future leaders.

Seen from this perspective, it is perhaps not so surprising that I could be elected lieutenant governor of my tribe at age thirty-six despite having been passed over for a movie theater assistant manager position as a teenager and was only sympathetically elected secretary of a Native American student association in college. To be instilled with such leadership responsibilities at a young age was what my Pueblo society came to expect of me. But it was also a result of many deliberate and far-reaching actions that experienced leaders had taken to prepare me for leadership.

As philanthropic and nonprofit leaders, many of you who are attending this conference may be considering how to encourage successful leadership transitions in your organizations. At the heart of this is the question What actions can current leaders take to help develop new leaders? As described in “Up Next: Generation Change and the Leadership of Nonprofit Organizations” by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, while there is general agreement about the qualities that make good leaders, “there was less clarity about how people could become leaders.”

For this reason, I have taken this opportunity to reflect on and identify those tangible and replicable efforts made by older leaders that facilitated my transition into leadership. I have identified five Leadership Actions you might consider to prepare and encourage new leaders, each of which will be illustrated with stories of the “leadership crossroads” in which they took place.

I do not believe that my life experience is unique and am somewhat uncomfortable shining a spotlight on efforts I've been involved in. However, I also see this essay as a way to recognize those older leaders for what they did to help me and, in that way, to remind my generation of our responsibility to do for the next what was done for us.

Action One: Allow Individuals to Initiate Their Own Path toward Leadership

It might be strange to begin with something leaders shouldn't do, as opposed to something they should do. Very often, seasoned leaders can clearly recognize the leadership potential in certain individuals and are tempted to take it upon themselves to push them in that direction. But taking a step back and allowing individuals to initiate their own path may be the best way to encourage them toward leadership.

My father, Dr. Dave Warren, was raised by his father to be an Indian leader and, in many ways, he fulfilled that expectation. He was an All-State basketball player, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, one of the first American Indians to earn a Ph.D., and through various directorships and appointed positions he made significant contributions toward the maintenance of tribal languages and cultures both nationally and internationally. Nevertheless, in time he came to resent how this role had been largely predetermined for him. Because of this he purposely allowed my sister and me to choose our own paths. For example, though he was deeply involved in the creation of policy and programs affecting tribes, he took us to few meetings or events with him and we met only a handful of his colleagues. Originally I didn't understand why he didn't expose us more to the remarkable work he did.

However, when my father saw that I was developing an interest in tribal history, law, and policy early in college, he began to send me an occasional journal article or report on these topics. As I began to ask more questions, he revealed an expansive library of books, willingly answered my questions, and put me in touch with his wealth of contacts. But all of this was at my request. Though his academic degrees were also in history, it was by my own choice that I obtained a bachelor's degree in history from Dartmouth College and decided to complete an optional honors thesis on the ancestral lands of my Pueblo.

By allowing me to choose my path and then providing me with resources and support once I had chosen my direction, my father allowed me to develop my own desire to assume leadership responsibilities at my own pace and in my own way.

Action Two: Delegate Increasingly Complex Projects and Responsibilities to New Leaders

In 2000, Santa Clara Pueblo shocked many when we regained 5,046 acres of the former Baca Ranch in a challenging collaborative purchase with the U.S. government. As the Pueblo's Land Claims/Rights Protection Coordinator, I was fortunate to manage the efforts of the tremendous team of people and organizations that accomplished this feat. But the leadership skills required for this monumental undertaking had begun to be developed more than eleven years before.

In 1989, while a junior in college, I was selected as an Andrew W. Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellow. This fellowship provided me with funding and support to complete a significant research project of my choosing. I approached then-Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Calvin Tafoya to ask how this research could be done to benefit the Pueblo. Rather than disregard this eager nineteen-year-old, he advised me to research the land claims of our Pueblo. After two solid years of research, including numerous interviews and visits to archives and libraries across the country, I completed a 221-page bachelor's thesis entitled “Defining a Homeland: A History of 26,228.17 Acres of Land in Northern New Mexico.” By taking me seriously and creating an opportunity for my efforts to have a greater meaning to my Pueblo, Governor Tafoya enabled me to learn more about the history of my Pueblo and our ancestral lands, gain important research and analytical skills, apply my knowledge and skills to benefit my community, and begin to experience being accountable to my people and our leadership. Upon graduating from Dartmouth I returned to Santa Clara and gave my thesis to then-Governor Walter Dasheno and the tribal council for their use. I thought that would be the extent of my contribution.

Governor Dasheno had other plans. He worked to secure funding to hire me as Land Claims Researcher. I was excited to continue this work for my Pueblo. After a few months as Researcher I realized that what was really needed was someone to coordinate the overall efforts to regain the Pueblo's ancestral land. We had several attorneys, lobbyists, and staff working on the issue. Though the governor and council were supportive and involved, they had many other responsibilities and could not be expected to manage the day-to-day actions needed to achieve the Pueblo's goals. Governor Dasheno supported the creation of the position. I insisted that it be advertised throughout the community, believing that there must be someone more qualified to be such a coordinator.

No one else applied. When Governor Dasheno and the Pueblo hired me, at age twenty-three and just a year and a half out of college, to coordinate our Pueblo's land claims efforts, they trusted me with a tremendous responsibility. In time this experience would allow me to learn essential management skills and give me the opportunity to prove myself, design a program, and protect the Pueblo's interests.

The first such opportunity came in 1994, when a proposal arose to locate a regional landfill on 31-Mile Road, just north of the Santa Clara reservation. This would have potentially impacted our land and cultural resources as well as jeopardized future efforts to regain some of our traditional lands. It was my first opportunity to plan and lead a complex public initiative. Over more than two years, staff from several Santa Clara programs, attorneys from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, and allies including the local Sikh community and a Spanish land grant board of directors, successfully fought to stop the landfill.

Though there were many more-seasoned staff members, Governor Dasheno appointed me to represent the Pueblo on the North Central Solid Waste Planning Committee, which included representation from regional tribal, county, and city governments and would ultimately decide the location of the landfill. Through careful organizing and negotiation—even including a letter-writing campaign by Santa Clara elementary school students—we succeeding in relocating the regional landfill. And after a new location was chosen I continued to serve on this committee as elected secretary and acting chairman. I believe that Governor Dasheno understood that managing the 31-Mile Road project would help me begin developing relationships with other governmental leaders in the region, enable me to learn complex advocacy and strategic planning, hone my communication and diplomacy skills, and allow me to learn how to organize people, resources and organizations to accomplish a common goal.

On September 24, 1997, shortly after this success, we learned that the longtime private owners of the Baca Ranch were finally willing to sell the property—but only to the federal government. This 95,000-acre property contained one of the most significant parts of our ancestral homeland—P'opii Khanu, the headwaters and upper watershed of Santa Clara Creek. Since time immemorial, the creek and its surrounding canyon have provided the water, wildlife, plants, and cultural resources that have sustained our people. For 137 years our Pueblo had fought, unsuccessfully, to regain those stolen lands through administrative action, exchange, litigation, and even attempts at purchase. Now, the federal government was eager to buy the ranch, which it had sought for more than eighty years. In the way stood our Pueblo, a small village of twenty-five hundred people with limited resources and power, but with a firm conviction that the time had come for this part of our ancestral land to return to us.

Few immediately appreciated this historic opportunity for our Pueblo, though many understood the challenges ahead. Once again, Governor Dasheno and the tribal council gave me the responsibility to lead this effort, though there were others who were older and had far more experience. They even allowed me to speak for the Pueblo in many negotiating sessions. In return, I gave the project everything I had.

In the ensuing three years we negotiated a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing Santa Clara to buy back our part of the Baca Ranch and persuaded the private landowners to sell our portion to us. In an unprecedented move, we obtained a 1,214-acre conservation and access easement over what would become the federal part of the Baca Ranch. We raised $4.5 million from the Lannan Foundation to purchase this land. Despite every effort to ignore or dissuade us, we persevered and worked as a team. We strategically sought and received the support of our congressional delegation members, the governor of New Mexico, the county commissions in whose boundaries those lands fell, local cattle owners, and thirteen conservation, sportsmen's, and wildlife groups. In cooperation with the many supporters of federal and Pueblo acquisition of the Baca Ranch, we got authorization legislation passed through a very divisive U.S. Congress. Finally, on July 25, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 106-248 and the legal deeds were executed, returning 5,046 acres to Santa Clara. It was the Pueblo's largest land reacquisition in over ninety-five years and fulfilled a dream of four generations of our people.

What can be learned from these series of events? Simply put, once an individual has shown an interest in and aptitude for leadership, current leaders should take an active interest in providing him or her with increasingly difficult opportunities to practice leadership. Though the stakes are high in more complex projects and it may be beyond their comfort zone or previous experience, allowing new leaders to manage such initiatives is the only way for them to gain the experience and confidence to assume greater responsibility over time.

Action Three: Step Aside and Share Power with New Leaders

Most leaders would agree with the idea of assigning responsibility to up-and-coming leaders. Actually yielding power and positions of authority often proves more challenging. Yet, in my experience, this must be done for new leaders to make the most of leadership opportunities. This can only come when current leaders step aside enough to let young leaders practice leadership.

In Santa Clara I have heard older leaders say, “Give the young ones a chance; we had our time and opportunity and have done what we could; let's let them have a try.” In several instances, including mine, these words have been matched with action. Since 1934, Santa Clara Pueblo's traditional government has operated according to a written constitution. Accordingly, four different traditional parties annually select one candidate each to run for the six elected tribal offices (governor, lieutenant governor, sheriff, interpreter, treasurer, and secretary). These parties also each directly appoint two representatives to the tribal council. Though according to our constitution candidates must be at least twenty-five years old, I was only twenty-three when the leadership of my party began asking me to run for tribal treasurer. Since I did not grow up in the Pueblo and had only lived there for about two years, I was surprised and honored to be asked. Once again, they could have chosen from many other, older individuals who had served in tribal government positions.

In 1995, when I was twenty-five years old, I accepted their request to run for tribal treasurer. Though I lost to a former governor more than twice my age, I received a surprisingly large number of votes. After the election results were known, the leadership of my group chose to appoint me as a tribal council representative. As such, I had one of twelve votes on every matter presented to the council, I had the ability to raise and advocate for issues, and I began to be approached by Pueblo members for assistance with their needs and concerns. They appointed me to the tribal council two more times, in 1997 and 1998. In 1999 I ran again for tribal treasurer and was elected. By selecting me to run for office and appointing me at a young age to the tribal council, our party's leadership showed that they had the faith and trust in me to assume greater leadership in the community. They also provided me with the invaluable opportunity to learn from other tribal officials and councilmembers how to carefully exercise leadership responsibilities and make difficult decisions in conformity with our culture and values.

One thing I learned is that tribal leaders can sometimes be unpredictable. In November, 2002, I had served for two years on the Tribal Lands Advisory Council for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). The council, which advises TPL on the management of its Tribal Lands Program and its interaction with tribal governments and organizations across the country, is composed of an impressive array of individuals. At that time, this included three tribal chairpersons, a former U.S. congresswoman, a former U.S. senator, a law school dean; and a former U.S. attorney. When the chairman of the council stepped down in November 2002, there were clearly many others on the council who would have been much more qualified than me to become chair. I'll never forget the words spoken by former Quinault Nation President Pearl Capoeman-Baller when nominations were being taken. She began, “Between Chairman [Eddie] Tullis, Chairman [Antone] Mintorn, and me, I'm sure we can agree…” I was prepared to hear that one of them would accept the chair's responsibilities. Then she concluded “…that it would be good for Alvin to become chairman.”

I was shocked by what I heard. But, coming from such respected tribal leaders, how could I decline? I accepted and was voted in by acclamation. Now as a tribal leader I can appreciate that partly this was done because these tribal leaders were busy chairing many other committees and dealing with numerous responsibilities. But it was also clearly a “leadership crossroad” where the other leaders decided to take a step back and give me an opportunity to practice leadership.

Action Four: Provide Guidance and Support to New Leaders

Stepping aside doesn't mean turning away. New leaders need guidance and support from current leaders to succeed. Teaching critical skills, sharing important knowledge, showing support with other decision-makers—your efforts to mentor and guide young leaders can make the difference in their success.

Unlike most of my fellow tribal leaders, I didn't grow up on the reservation. My parents raised me thirty miles away in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my father worked for the Institute of American Indian Arts. Though a full-blooded Indian, my father does not speak the Tewa language and lived in Santa Clara for only short portions of his childhood. While I was growing up my family visited the Pueblo often for feast days and other cultural events, and I occasionally stayed there with relatives. But I only truly began learning my language and culture when my paternal grandmother, Louisita Baca Warren, moved in with us when I was eleven. My saya grew up in the Pueblo in the early 1900s, when outside influences had not greatly changed a way of life that had been practiced there for centuries. Through her stories of growing up, she taught me our Pueblo's history and culture. Though reluctant at first because of her boarding school experience, where native languages were discouraged, she became my first and greatest teacher of the Tewa language. After she passed away in 1989, I was fortunate to continue learning from my great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins. Over these many years they have taught me our language's intricacies and imbedded values, guided me in our traditions, and taught me cultural skills vital to living in our community. I am grateful to all of them for their wisdom in recognizing that such broad-based cultural knowledge is necessary for success as a person and as a leader.

Other leaders were present, as well, to teach and guide me throughout the different projects I was given to lead. Possibly the most memorable to me are the members of Santa Clara's Land Claims Committee. These included: the late Avelino Tafoya; the late Eugene Naranjo; the late former-Governor Frankie V. Gutierrez; former-Governor Denny Gutierrez; former-Governor Walter Dasheno; former-Governor Calvin Tafoya; and former-Councilmember Fidel Naranjo. This committee, appointed by the tribal council in 1992, collectively represented over three hundred years of experience in our land claims efforts. I continue to have tremendous respect for them.

From 1992 to 2000 they guided, advised, and supported me as Land Claims Coordinator in our land claims efforts. Though it would have been reasonable for them to dictate our course of action, they were willing to hear my new ideas and support a new strategy. This included acquiring and organizing all of our key historical documents, conducting a traditional-boundary mapping project to confirm and map our ancestral territory, and prioritizing specific tracts of land for reacquisition. Throughout the P'opii Khanu project they listened to the information and situations I brought to them, and gave me their recommendations. Though there were three occasions on which our efforts faltered, they did not withdraw their support for me or our efforts. Rather, they encouraged me to learn from these setbacks and helped me to plan new strategies. Without both their encyclopedic knowledge of our traditional lands and resources, and the faith they demonstrated in me—whether with community members or tribal officials—the Land Claims Program would have failed and we would not have regained significant portions of our tribal lands.

From these experiences many lessons can be drawn. It is important for leaders to model and teach the art of communication as well as the culture of your organization and your issue area. Though there may be temporary setbacks or failures, continue to provide your support and don't intervene unless absolutely required. Finally, identify ways you can play a supporting role to new leaders and be willing to support them with those in positions of influence.

Action Five: Recognize Them!

Most of us don't do the work we do in order to win awards. But I have found that recognition can be a powerful tool in encouraging new leaders. Over seventy years ago Dale Carnegie advised leaders to “be lavish in your praise” and “give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.” Clearly, in recognizing the accomplishments of up-and-coming leaders we can help them see the leadership potential in themselves.

In 1990 I was selected Indian Student of the Year by the National Indian Education Association, largely because of the land claims research and thesis I was writing for my tribe. This national honor was awarded to one Native American student “whose academic success, demonstrated leadership, and extensive community involvement provides a role model for all Native American students.” I saw few of these traits in myself at that time and so was completely shocked to be selected. Yet because of the award, the Dartmouth College administration and others began to identify me as an Indian student leader. I was invited to different meetings and events at Dartmouth and found that people sought my opinion about tribal issues and took them more seriously because of this newly bestowed title. The award caused me to recognize how my life and I had changed through the research project, how I had the potential to make a greater contribution to my tribe and to other Native peoples. It led me to wonder, What if I do have the ability to be a leader?

Similarly, just over ten years later, the Rockefeller Foundation selected me as one of its Next Generation Leadership (NGL) Fellows. I was one of twenty-five individuals from across the nation picked to participate in the fourth cohort of this program. The executive director of the Lannan Foundation nominated me for this program primarily because of our successful reacquisition of P'opii Khanu. The fellowship was designed to create a diverse inter-sectoral network of leaders who were entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and fair, to develop problem-solving models and identify solutions to the social, economic, and technological disparities that threaten democracy. Once again, I was surprised and humbled to be associated with so many phenomenal leaders of all ages from around the country. The other fellows were primarily executive directors and leaders of nonprofit organizations, academics, civic leaders, and innovators. Over the course of two years, I attended four gatherings with the other fellows to learn about and discuss different topics important to the practice of leadership and democracy.

Because of NGL I came to accept myself as a leader and to welcome opportunities to improve my leadership abilities beyond reacquiring traditional lands for my tribe. For example, in 2003 and 2004 I coordinated the First International Forum on Indigenous Mapping in Vancouver, British Columbia. This groundbreaking conference included two hundred participants from twenty-four countries. Also, I helped found the Santa Clara Governor's Task Force on Youth and Families in response to several community challenges. This task force was created by Governor Jeff Sisneros and the tribal council in 2004 and is composed of twenty-four tribal leaders, program directors, elders, youth, and community members. It has improved the condition of youth and families in the Pueblo through advocating for and mobilizing community action toward the creation of new tribal laws and policies; the acquisition of funding for new programs and initiatives; and improved coordination and service delivery by tribal programs.

Recognition can help new leaders appreciate that their ability to lead may extend beyond a particular project or circumstance. It can show them that they possess leadership qualities, experiences, and knowledge that are unique and valuable and could be used in a variety of capacities. It can serve as both a mirror to reflect their achievements to date and a window into their potential to have a greater positive impact on their organizations, their communities and, perhaps, the world.

Frances Hesselbein, in her article “A Long and Exuberant Journey,” describes a video by Warren Bennis profiling three leaders from his book The Leader Within. Hesselbein, the former chief executive of the Girl Scouts of the USA and founding president of the Drucker Foundation, quotes Bennis as saying, “These three people never started out to become leaders. They began to express themselves in their work and, along the way, they became leaders.”

Reflecting on my journey toward leadership—which is far from complete—it is clear that many current and former leaders were instrumental in ensuring that as I “expressed myself in my work,” I would gain the knowledge, confidence, and support to become a more effective leader. It is now my turn to do the same for those who come after me. As surely as it became my time to assume leadership in my community it will soon be my responsibility to yield and support the next generation of leaders.

I am not afraid of these transitions. From the ancient cliff dwellings of our ancestral village of Puye to the centuries-old adobe buildings that enclose the plazas of Khap'o Owingeh today, I am reassured that my community has remained and grown through countless generations of leaders, each guided and taught by those who came before.