The Challenge of TCU Leadership

May 2nd, 2015 | By | Category: 26-4: Tribal College Governance, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Monte Randall

A traditional stomp dance at College of the Muscogee Nation.

Ever since their founding, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have served underrepresented populations of Native students. The challenge for TCU leadership is to balance American Indian culture with mainstream Western education, especially in the areas of government, leadership, and general education. TCUs must strive to maintain their tribe’s sovereign rights as well as meet the academic standards of the various accrediting agencies (Bordeaux, 2012). In this study, I will review the literature written on TCU leadership—and leadership in general—in an effort to present a viable framework for future studies on identifying styles of governance that facilitate cultural and academic rigor on TCU campuses. Further research on the leadership styles of TCU administrations may help determine whether there is a need for specific training to develop future leaders.


Many Native cultures use a circle as a symbol of continuing life and to illustrate the relationship between all living beings. Leadership is also a reciprocal relationship between those who choose to lead and those who decide to follow. Leadership is described as being a part of the organization, not apart from it (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). TCU administrators must lead in ways that inspire both cultural and academic rigor in order for their respective institutions to maintain their missions. TCUs have the difficult task of teaching students who live in two worlds: their tribal world with their traditional customs, and the modern world of Western beliefs (Bowman, 2009). TCU leaders must work to preserve or revitalize Native language and culture. Concurrently, they face the same pressures as mainstream institutions, such as political pressure, funding, and meeting accreditation standards. Both areas of education—Native American and Western—have a unique set of standards that will be tested for rigor by respective authorities (Bowman, 2009). TCU leadership will have to be versed in both worlds to guide the institution down the two paths.

A recent study of a sample of TCU presidents showed that most had a Western form of educational training and conferring degrees (Bowman, 2009). The presidents also indicated that they needed to modify their leadership styles on the job to meet both the cultural and educational needs of the faculty, staff, and students (Bowman, 2009). These presidents adapted a form of credible leadership that comes with a sense of commitment to the shared vision of the institution. Some TCU presidents in the study had served as leaders since the beginning of their institution’s existence; others gained experience through different tribal positions but built credibility by taking ownership of the mission and vision of the tribal college. Several in the study indicated that they had spoken with elders of the tribe for cultural and spiritual advice on how to be a leader within the community (Bowman, 2009).

TCU leaders can establish a tone of respect for the traditional teaching of tribal customs by incorporating them through structures or art that depicts Native values. TCU leaders must inspire everyone on campus, including faculty and staff, to buy into the college’s cultural vision. Leadership studies have shown that those who exhibit transformational leadership styles are more likely to inspire their workers and create higher job satisfaction (Webb, 2009). Transformational leaders must be visionaries who look beyond their institutions and to the future (Hawkins, 2009). In addition, leaders must be motivators who inspire change and are committed to their vision. Transformational leaders create change, and TCUs can change the way accreditors view their programs and standards by offering them a vision of the college through a Native lens that illuminates the TCU’s cultural context. Further studies suggest that transformational leadership is well suited for college and university presidents (Webb, 2009).

TCUs have an important role within the tribal nations that they serve. They will educate the citizens and create the future tribal leaders who have the knowledge of government, culture, business, etc. that is needed to sustain sovereignty and growth. While TCUs are building capacity for tribal nations, a TCU leader must develop the capacity of the institution by managing the development of the faculty and staff and providing opportunities for cultural teaching. Leaders must also work as mentors to prepare others to take their places in management and set up the organization for success (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). By encouraging leadership, this concept of preparing for the future is facilitated through the culture of the organization.

Leadership research studies most often focus on White male leadership (Chin, 2011). Theories of leadership from these studies suggest that ethnicity is unimportant to leadership. But TCUs, with their unique mission to create a cultural context on campus, are different. They must consider the influence of their tribal customs and worldviews, leaders, and their leadership styles. Current theories fail to recognize the importance of social and cultural worldviews on developing leadership styles (Chin, 2011). With the increasing development of TCUs and the importance placed on culture and academic standards, it is imperative that institutions assert their sovereignty to create programs and assessments that incorporate Native cultural values. The success of a higher education institution depends on how well it can use its resources and guide its stakeholders (Sypawka et al., 2010). TCUs can build the capacity for the future of the tribe by educating and providing experience to fill growing positions of leadership within their institutions. Leadership that promotes tribal cultures and worldviews contributes to the philosophy and style of leadership which is necessary to carry out the unique missions of TCUs (Chin, 2011).


Any program seeking to develop TCU leadership must incorporate traditional knowledge in order to carry out the unique mission of tribal higher education. At College of the Muscogee Nation, elders such as George Cosar (above) regularly give cultural presentations to students, faculty, staff, and administrators.


Many TCU presidents agree that it is important to their tribal college’s mission to maintain both their culture and accreditation standards as well as to maintain membership with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (Bowman, 2009). Many of the presidents sought the advice of elders in the community, participated in ceremonies, and initiated cultural activities on campus. Several of the respondents were hopeful about the future of their institutions and their ability to combine both culture and academics with Indigenous methods of assessment.

All of the TCU presidents interviewed in Bowman’s study attended non-TCUs to earn their academic credentials. However, they all returned to their respective tribes to serve in many leadership positions, ultimately attaining a TCU presidency (Bowman, 2009). Two of the respondents were their institution’s founding presidents, whereas others first served in administrative positions or in elected positions with the state and tribal governments. While these paths certainly helped these individuals achieve their goals, all agreed that a new system of mentorship, specifically for TCU presidents, should be developed as a program or as an academy. A leadership program could ultimately build capacity for tribes and TCUs by maintaining tribal sovereignty through governance that resembles aspects of the tribe’s traditional norms and practices. A leadership program can incorporate teachings from tribal elders, educators, financial officers, and governmental officials, among others.

Future presidents should have knowledge of college and university administration, including academics, accreditation, finance, student services, and research, the current presidents say (Bowman, 2009). Leaders also need to have good communication skills, including active listening, mentoring, and team building, and they should understand specifically how TCUs operate. TCU leaders should create a system of values and communicate those values to the institution. They need to develop a credo that defines his or her philosophy to create a personal purpose to follow, letting others know of those values. This will ensure that TCU faculty and staff stay in touch with those values (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). American Indian values are important to the institution and can be incorporated into its educational philosophy.

In their study on leadership characteristics, Kouzes and Posner (2011) identified several key traits and strategies that can serve as guideposts in the development of TCU leadership. According to their findings, leaders must evaluate their values to provide a foundation for credibility. A credible leader must create a morality within the organization that holds people accountable (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Leadership should be built on self-competence first, before the leader focuses on others, because followers will ultimately discover an incompetent leader. Leaders must build their skills to complete the tasks and to build themselves for future tasks (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).

Competent leaders build teams and create momentum for the institution to run smoothly. A good leader supports the mission of the organization and is someone who is constantly echoing the mission and encouraging the team. The leader must be committed to the mission of the TCU to encourage cultural and academic integrity for continued growth. He or she must be able to share information and connect with others to improve the organization. Traditionally, American Indian leaders were orators who inspired their people with great speeches. Traditional leaders also led by example and invented new ideas, using imaginative thinking to solve problems. American Indian values of honesty and integrity made traditional leaders effective in many situations; they were able to use a different prospective to dismiss the status quo that would undermine effective leadership.

To be truly effective, a leader should ask for feedback from his or her constituents on a scheduled basis. It is the responsibility of the leader to make the initial steps to reach out to the people and service their needs. Through this act of reaching out, leaders become more visible to the people and more approachable. Traditionally, American Indian leaders put their people first, and it was their duty and responsibility to see that all their needs were being met. Leaders must take the time to listen and not just dictate to their constituents. They make impressions on their people on a daily basis and they must be prepared for every type of encounter, being consistent in their decisions. Leadership will set the tone for the institution as one that connects to the students in a way that can meet the changing needs of Native students today.


Higher education is in a time of change and is experiencing new demographics in students, faculty, and staff. The younger constituent base and workforce is more diverse and more reliant on new technology (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). People are losing touch with the soft skills such as communication and cooperation. TCU leaders must hold on to their values of honesty and competence to make others around them understand the culture of the organization and to reinforce their leadership. Leadership inspiration and convergence is important to further change and inspire everyone to buy in to the overall mission of the institution (Kezar, 2012). TCU leadership can take this opportunity to address the challenges of diversity through the lens of the cultural leadership structures of councils, diplomacy, and wisdom. Leadership roles can be distributed throughout the organization in order to learn group processes facilitated by mentoring, coaching, and role playing. Administrators and faculty may be more intrinsically motivated if given a role of authority in an area with which they are familiar, and therefore they may be more creative in their leadership styles (Kandiko, 2012).

TCUs can lead the way for Native nations to reclaim their cultures with a strong effort to incorporate culture into the academic standards of student learning. As demonstrated with the College of the Muscogee Nation (CMN), learning outcomes of American Indian languages are being projected in and out of the classrooms. CMN’s core values of vrakkueckv (respect), fvtcetv (integrity), mecvlke (responsibility), eyasketv (humility), and hoporenkv (wisdom) can be seen in every classroom and are a significant part of student services. Additionally, during the development of the Sinte Gleska College (now University), the college’s founders wanted students to attend a local college where they would be surrounded and supported by relatives, friends, and their cultural environment. It was important to talk to the people in their Native language to create a connection between the students and the school (Bordeaux, 2012).

In the future, tribal colleges and universities will need to include methods to prepare the younger generations of tribal members both culturally and academically. The role of TCUs has evolved to become the educational hub for many first-generation and low-income students. Often, students require remedial courses in their general education. Along with providing a cultural foundation, TCU leaders face these challenges and the challenges of funding, politics, and accreditation standards and will need to create innovative types of leadership suited to the culture of the institution. A type of leadership with a traditional framework, such as navigator—in which the leader keeps others on track so that they may find their direction—may be a good approach for TCU leaders. Other types of leadership styles include problem-solvers, who generate alternatives, and engagers, who make sure the employees are happy and who encourage everyone to fulfill the college’s mission. A good leader will pull his or her team together, just as traditional leaders have done for generations in Native communities. In order to have successful people around, a leader must have the right people around (Collins, 2001). True leadership comes from a guiding vision and a passion to accomplish a noble task, inspiring others to develop their potential.


Since 1978, when the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act was signed into law, TCUs have been working to strengthen their respective tribal nations by teaching Indian education in accordance with accreditation standards. TCUs strive to educate future leaders who understand the connection between culture and sovereignty. TCU leadership needs to be based on cultural teachings of respect and combined with proven leadership styles that will empower faculty and staff to buy into the mission of the institution. TCU missions are specific to their tribes and to their institutions, but collectively their shared goal is to provide future leaders for their tribes. Indian leaders have traditionally made their decisions based on the idea that they are affecting the lives of people seven generations into the future. This idea of projecting leadership initiatives for future generations takes a leader with vision. TCUs have that shared vision but have a wide range of degree programs to facilitate the mission. Just as the institution employs an interdisciplinary approach to education, the leadership can also use this approach to synthesize the culture and academics across the entire institution (Kandiko, 2012). Such an approach can spark a creative environment, much like transformational leadership that encourages creative thinking to find new ways to solve problems.

TCUs are poised to usher in a new era of tribal leaders educated under the Western educational framework but who instill Native American culture and values. Leadership is the crucial part of the structure that will pull the institution together to meet the needs of the tribes and the students who attend the TCUs. The leaders may use a variety styles to express their commitment to the mission, which will ultimately maintain the sovereignty of their respective nations. Further research on tribal leadership is needed to determine if there is a need to design programs or academies for mentoring and training tribal members to be the leaders of the future.

Monte Randall (Muscogee) is dean of student affairs at College of the Muscogee Nation.


Bordeaux, L. (2012). The Call to Lead: Words of Wisdom from the Longest-Serving Tribal College President. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 24(2), 26–29.

Bowman, N. (2009). Dreamweavers: Tribal College Presidents Build Institutions Bridging Two Worlds. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 20(4), 12–18.

Chin, J. (2011). Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Current Contexts. Forum On Public Policy Online. Retrieved from

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York City, NY: Harper Collins.

Hawkins, C. (2009). Leadership Theories-Managing Practices, Challenges, Suggestions. Community College Enterprise, 15(2), 39–62.

Kandiko, C.B. (2012). Leadership and Creativity in Higher Education: The Role of Interdisciplinarity. London Review of Education, 10(2), 191–200.

Kezar, A. (2012). Bottom-up/Top-down Leadership: Contradiction or Hidden Phenomenon. Journal of Higher Education, 83(5), 725–760.

Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (2011). Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sypawka, W., Mallett, W., & McFadden, C. (2010). Leadership Styles of Community College Academic Deans. Community College Enterprise, 16(1), 63–73.

Webb, K.S. (2009). Creating Satisfied Employees in Christian Higher Education: Research on Leadership Competencies. Christian Higher Education, 8(1), 18–31.

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