Ned Norris, Jr.: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office

Native Nations Institute

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris discusses some things he wished he knew before he took office as chairman of his nation, and shares some strategies that have worked for him as he works with his fellow leaders and the O'odham people to strengthen their nation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Norris, Jr., Ned. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 23, 2011. Presentation. 

"Wow, Chairwoman Miles. I cannot disagree with anything that she shared with us today. That is so...everything that she said has been so true about leadership. And I'm sitting here and I'm listening to you and I'm listening to her comments and she's kind of going into a little bit more of her experience in those situations and I'm like, "˜Wow, I thought I was the only one that had that kind of an experience.' And I admire you. You may not want to do it again, but you need to do it again. You need to do it again. Your people need you in that way.

Well, I wanted to start out with a quote. I usually try to do that, starting out with a quote and ending with a quote. And the quote that I want to start out with, people ask me over time -- like Rebecca [Miles] said -- I serve my people, started in 1977. My first job with my nation was the assistant director for our children's home and I've served in some capacity since then and continue to serve today. And people over years have said, "˜How do you do what you're doing? How do you get to where you're at? How do you become the success that we see you at or being?' And I don't know the answer to that, but there's a quote here that I wanted to share with you. It says, "˜There are no secrets in success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.' Preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. And that was Colin Powell who is attributed to that quote. And when I think about the question, when it's asked, "˜How do you become the success that you are?' I knew in 1977 when I took my first job with my nation that I wanted to do the job that I'm doing today. I knew in 1977 when I came out to my people and I saw the situations that we were faced with that I wanted to do the job that I'm doing today. And so consciously and subconsciously, you kind of prepare yourself over the years. And there are things that happen in your life, there are definitely things that have happened in my life that probably wouldn't, shouldn't have given me the opportunity to serve in this capacity that I'm serving as chair of my people. And we think about some of those things and we think about what are we doing, how do we prepare ourselves to lead, how do we prepare ourselves to lead a nation, and what does that even mean?

Somebody asked me when I was preparing to go to my first day in my capacity as chairman of the nation, of the [Tohono] O'odham Nation, and they said, "˜So what does a chair do its first day?' And it kind of -- as Chairwoman Miles had indicated -- you kind of come into this thing not really knowing exactly what it is -- in my term -- I got myself into. So what does a chair do on his first day? I don't know what a chair does on his first day. I've never been in that situation before. So I go into my office and I sit there, I sit in the office and I'm looking around, my wife's with me, one of my grandsons is with me. And I kind of look around and I think to myself, "˜Oh, my goodness, what did I just do? What did I get myself into?' And the reality of this whole leadership thing, this whole Chair of the Tohono O'odham Nation, chair of a people that's 28,000 members strong, chair of a land base that's 2.8 million square acres in size, and I thought to myself, "˜Wow, what is this? What am I going to do?'

And so I think everything that Chairwoman Miles has said, you've got to begin to think about, 'Okay, what is the condition of the O'odham Nation as I'm coming into office?' And she talked about campaigning for change. One of the things that Vice Chairman Isidro Lopez and I did when we campaigned, and to date this creative time of year is campaign season for us, because my term as chair will end unless I'm re-elected in May, in a couple of months now. But when we were campaigning for this office, we were campaigning not for change. We were campaigning not to say, "˜We promise you this, or we're going to do this when we get into office, or we're going to address these kinds of issues when we get into office,' because I knew in doing that, I knew in running for this office that I don't know what it is going to take in order to make those kind of changes. People are going to remember the commitments that you make. People are going to remember, "˜Well, you know, you said when you were running you're going to get rid of so-and-so. Four years later, they're still here, why haven't you done that?' No, we can't do that. You can't campaign on the platform of change in that way.

And as other comments were made, you're establishing your leadership. So what does that mean? So you establish leadership and as a leader you're a problem solver. What kinds of problems...and there's a lot of things that you inherit in the office from previous administrations. There are things that you realize need to be addressed or there are things that the previous administration has done that you want to try and continue. And regardless of who started addressing that particular issue, you shouldn't be so concerned that people are going to say, "˜Well, the only reason he's doing it is because Chairperson So-and-So started that.' If you believe in your heart that that's the best way that you want to move forward on that particular issue, why reinvent the wheel? Why go back and say, "˜Well, you know what, I didn't agree with that administration so we're going to do it this way,' and it all ends up accomplishing the same task, the same thing. It makes no sense.

So one of the single aspects, the [most] difficult single aspects of my job was thinking that after some 30 years of service before being elected as chairman, that I knew everything. Because in getting into the office, I realized, after 30 years, Ned Norris, you don't know everything about the government, the tribal government. You don't know it all. Yet, in the back of my mind thought, "˜I've got 30 years of service, man, I'm going to come in here and I'm going to do a bunch of stuff,' not realizing that that bunch of stuff that I want to do isn't going to happen overnight. So that was difficult for me thinking in my mind, in the back of my mind that I was going to be able to make the kinds of decisions and make the kinds of changes that we needed to make because my 30 years was going to help me do that, and it didn't. And so I guess that was probably one of the surprising, unexpected aspects of my job as well, with what I do as well, is coming to terms with the fact that you don't know it all. And your 30 years of experience -- granted, yes, will help in many ways -- your leadership, your direction, but you don't know it all.

I think there are a lot of of the questions was, 'Were there topics, for example financial literacy, federal laws that you had to play catch up?' As I was introduced, I spent some 14 years as a tribal judge, as a non-attorney tribal judge and in my different academic experiences and different work experiences I've come to understand federal law, tribal law, state law and so on and so forth and how it works or how it doesn't work. And then in my experience a little over ten years working with our gaming enterprise, I really began to understand this whole concept of making money -- foreign concept to us as Native people because we've never had any money. We really never had any money to make and so I think that those experiences really helped me better understand the nation's finances.

And let me share this story with you because it was kind of a lifesaver for us, the Tohono O'odham people. But I don't know how many of you take time to read your audits. Sometimes... we get audited every year, many of our nations do; you have to anyway. And how many of you take some time to read your audits? I guess that's one of the first things Vice Chairman Lopez and I did when we got into office. My gaming experience said, "˜Okay, what have our audits told us the last five years?' So I said, "˜I want to see what those audits look like so let me have those audits for the last five years.' And I started looking through these audits and I started to see that there was always this ending balance of $5 million, $10 million, $15 million that appear to just be sitting there as a result of an audit. And so I asked our tribal treasurer, I said, "˜What is this dollar figure here, what does it mean? Go back and reconcile those years of those audits and come back and tell me what those dollar figures are.' And the treasurer did that. The nation, the Tohono O'odham Nation, when we came into office, we were spending more money than what we had. We were in a deficit where, and for historically the Nation has always been in a deficit spending more money than what the general revenue fund had. But what the treasurer came back and found out was, you know what, that's unobligated money from the previous fiscal years. That's unobligated money from the previous fiscal years. And what he ended up finding was $60 million of unobligated money from previous fiscal years. And I thought, 'My goodness! Jackpot. Jackpot. We can redo the budget, we can put ourselves in the black and we might have a little bit of money to start addressing some of the issues, some of the things that we wanted to address during our administration.'

We got elected in May of 2007, four-year term's coming up May of 2011. The recession hit. One year into our administration, our revenues, our projected revenues of 'X' millions of dollars from gaming was up here, just about a year after our first year of our administration was now plummeting down to here. And so what we've been able to do is survive these last three years on that surplus of revenue. And so I share this with you because I think having an understanding of big financial situations, financial structure, I think it's critically important to a tribal leader to understand. And even if you don't understand it, you've got resources I would hope within your tribal government that will help you better understand those. I've worked for my tribe for years and we had to make sure we understood where every single penny was. I'd get an invoice across my desk for $2,000 or $3,000 and I'm saying, "˜Where the heck are we spending $2,000 – $3,000 on?' In the gaming business, I'd get invoices across my desk and I was going to pay a single bill $20,000 - $25,000 and I'm like, 'My goodness, what are we spending this money on?' But that's not uncommon in that particular industry. And I'm not suggesting that we not make sure that we hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold ourselves accountable, but we need to understand big finance. We need to understand that, that's critical.

In addition to Chairwoman's comments, is there anything you wish you had done differently? When you get into office and when I got into office, I had every intention of making my presence available to our O'odham public -- to those villages, to those districts, to those communities. I wanted to be able to go out to them and just sit in the back of the room in their community meeting or their district meeting and listen to what and do that on a regular basis. And after...and over the years I'd comment, 'Once you get into office you get sucked into this hole and you can't get out.' Well, I got sucked into that hole and you don't realize it because you've got an enormous amount of issues that you're having to deal with. You've got an enormous amount of decisions that you need to make. You've got an enormous amount of direction that you need to establish that you just get so overwhelmed that that simple idea of going out to the communities and meeting with the folks and keeping that contact and sitting in the back of the room listening to what they have to say, it sort of went away, unintentionally. So I think in that respect what I would do differently is you've got to make time to be able to do that. You have got to make the time to sit back and go to the people that you've been elected to serve regardless of whether or not those people are in your support or not.

One of the things that, last things that I want to share with you, based on your experience, what skills, values and knowledge do leaders need to possess in order to lead effectively? One of the things that I got, I got a gift from one of our banks not long ago and the gift is a Harvard Business Review's 10 Must Reads in this book here, On Leadership. It says, "˜If you read nothing else on leadership, read these definitive articles from Harvard Business Review.' And I thought to myself, what does Harvard Business Review know about tribal government? What do they know about the Tohono O'odham Nation? But I took a look at the stuff in this, the ten articles, and I was really impressed with how much, at least the authors, in some of those articles knew about leadership. And one in particular was an author by the name of Daniel Coleman. He's author of Emotional Intelligence, 1995 and the co-author of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Harvard Business School 2002. And what I liked about that particular article is because, is that what Coleman distinguishes in great leaders from merely good ones. He talks about that and he talks about emotional intelligence and he talks about five skills that enables leaders to maximize their own and their followers' performance. Maximize their own and their followers' performance.

Let me talk about those skills [because] he talks about self-awareness as one of those five skills of emotional intelligence. In self-awareness you've got to know one's strengths, you've got to know one's weaknesses, you've go to know what drives that individual and you've got to have self-awareness on what impacts that has on others. That's one of those emotional intelligences that he talks about. Another one is self-regulation -- controlling or redirecting disruptive impulses and moods. Motivation is another one. Relishing achievements for its own sake. Relishing achievements for its own sake, not for your sake but for the sake of the achievement itself. Too many times we get leaders that come into office and say, "˜Well, I did this, I did that.' Everything's, "˜Me, me, me.' In my humble opinion, that's not a leader, because in my opinion my role is to help and provide direction and to take on those challenges that we face as tribal leaders and tribal communities, to try and take on the challenges of addressing those issues and coming to some resolution in some way.

Our campaign four years ago ran on the theme 'working together.' In O'odham [O'odham Language], "˜all of us together.' And that's what we wanted to do, that's what we wanted to bring to the table, the idea that we were going to re-establish those bridges that were no longer there between the other governmental entities within our nation, within the O'odham Nation. Our legislative, our executive, a lot of times didn't see eye to eye. We wanted to re-establish those relationships and I think we've done a pretty accurate job at that, four years later. But one of the other emotional intelligence skills is empathy, understanding other people's emotional makeup. Empathy: understanding other people's emotional makeup. And the fifth one that he talks about, Coleman talks about is social skills. Building rapport with others to move them in desired direction. Building rapport with others to move them in desired direction. Think about those. When I read that article, I thought, "˜My goodness, this guy wrote my article before I could.' But something to think about.

And I'm going to ahead and leave you because I think I've used up all my time. But I want to leave this thought with you, this quote. And it says, "˜The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he or she wants to get done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them when they do it.' Think about that. We're not micro managers, we're leaders. We're directors. We bring in people around us that are going to serve the agenda that we want to accomplish, that are going to be able to address those challenges, those issues that we face as tribal leaders. Let them do their job, but hold them accountable. Let them do what you ask them to do. If I'm going to be meddling in what I'm asking them to do or if I directed them to do, why do I need them? So thank you. Thank you for listening. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share these thoughts with you. Have a good one." 

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