- Kimberley Young Milani
- Dec 10, 2020
This blog is the fifth in a series derived from the insights shared by leaders in the public, private and not for profit sector during Ivey’s Learning from Leaders course.
Tabatha Bull, President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), spoke with Ivey students about how the Seven Grandfather Teachings inform her leadership, how Indigenous communities take the long view when determining impact, and how inspiring leaders do not need to be powerful figures, but can be found in our families and communities. Ms. Bull is Anishinaabe and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an electrical engineer (University of Waterloo) and for 20 years prior to joining CCAB, worked for consulting firms in the energy sector. She led the First Nations and Métis Relations team at the IESO, Ontario’s electricity system operator, and sits on several advisory councils and boards.
The little wins
“So I think the biggest thing is to celebrate the little wins along the way….” As we endure month nine of the pandemic and the end of the year rapidly approaches, Tabatha Bull looks to various tactics to prevent burnout and discouragement with her team. Bull assumed the role of CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business mere days before the March lockdown occurred, which in essence, threw any “first 90 days” plan she may have devised right out the window. All of a sudden “my biggest priority was ensuring that the team’s mental health was okay. One thing that I recognized as soon as I started was that we have a lot of employees with high emotional intelligence (EI)…they believe in what they're doing and they want to create change.” Research has shown that the dark side of such passionate engagement by the employees of not-for-profits is high rates of burnout. Because they are attached to their work on an emotional level, their personal investment in and commitment to fulfilling the organization’s mission can be exhaustive (long work hours) and exhausting (little self-care physically and emotionally). At the same time, employees can become highly discouraged if they feel as though their efforts have not contributed to making a broader impact. Bull has witnessed this frustration in some of her employees, especially if they have been at the organization for years. Now, with a global pandemic thrown in the mix, additional stressors abound. To help combat some of this, Bull ensured that her employees were set up with everything they needed to work comfortably and effectively from home and had weekly check-ins with the whole team. Also, it is critical for her that all employees continue to be celebrated, both internally and publically, for their efforts and the impact it creates. Bull shared, “I think it's important that anytime our organization receives kudos—for instance, some new legislation came out that we were a part of influencing— to highlight this impact where we all share in that recognition….publicly acknowledging that [as an organization], we've been asking for this, we think it's important, and we're really pleased to see it happen.”
The Seven Grandfather Teachings
For Bull, celebrating the little wins might be one tactic she uses to manage organizational engagement and employee well-being, but her leadership, and more so her character, is consciously grounded in the Seven Grandfather Teachings. These teachings (also called the Seven Sacred Teachings by some) are rooted in Anishinaabe traditional knowledge, but many other Indigenous communities follow or adapt them as well. As opposed to the prohibitive tone of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments (“thou shall not”), the Seven Grandfather Teachings are a way of being, a holistic set of teachings that can serve as guiding principles to living a good life – both individually and collectively. Every day, Bull strives to ensure that all she does is consistent with and reflective of those teachings. The Seven Grandfather teachings are:
These teachings particularly resonate within our Institute, as most of them are embedded within the Leader Character Framework developed over the years by Ivey faculty members Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz. An additional similarity is that the seven teachings and our eleven character dimensions are not offered as a pick-and-choose buffet; both are a set of interconnected elements where the strength or weakness of one, affects the whole.
While Bull did caution against homogenizing Indigenous cultures and cited the incredible diversity found in communities from coast to coast to coast, she did acknowledge that these particular teachings would have a level of familiarity across the country. In fact, in previous professional roles when Bull was working with a variety of Indigenous communities in a corporate capacity, “for them to know, and through my actions for me to prove, that the Grandfather Teachings are how I live, went a long way for us to be able to move forward.” She also turned the lens of those teachings inward on organizations she has worked for in order to measure “if what they were doing followed those teachings also. It's just something that really helps keeps you grounded when making decisions.”
When asked if there were other defining aspects to Indigenous leadership, she again dissuaded the notion of an exemplary Indigenous leader: “every leader is different…people are human.” However, she did note that there are beliefs and values she has in common with and are consistent amid other Indigenous leaders she admires. Specifically, to lead in a way that shows respect for the whole person, as well as respect for family balance, especially regarding the care of children. “I firmly believe that my people aren't okay, if their people aren't okay; they are not going to be able to be wholly present. We need to make space for them to take care of themselves and to take care of their families and, in the end, they'll reward the organization for that. They will be more committed employees, and believe in my leadership and be willing to support me.”
Another consistency Bull highlighted is the differing relationship with time between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations, the speed at which each does business, and the foresight Indigenous communities employ in their decision-making. Non-Indigenous organizations tend to strive for speed, and to complete projects, mergers, etc. as quickly as possible. Whereas, “if a community was asked to join a partnership, to build a renewable project for example, they would take that proposal to their community members to vote on. A town wouldn't do that. They would say, ‘Well, you've elected me as the mayor and the counselors and we're going to vote and move forward.’ In Indigenous communities, big decisions are a community decision.” As such, because of their commitment to hearing the voices of its members and to building consensus as much as possible, the process extends the amount of time required by Indigenous communities to determine their response. Bull also illuminated another foundational perspective to Indigenous decision-making: the impact of the decision on the next seven generations. “As an Indigenous person, you're always thinking ‘what am I leaving for my seventh generation?’ Those discussions don't happen at a boardroom table. And, those are not quick discussions. It takes additional time when you're really thinking about your impact for generations to come.”
Her Role Model
As a respected woman and Indigenous leader who supports and empowers others, Bull was asked who has served as her role model and inspired her leadership. Although she concurred with many students in the class who cited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their inspiration (“I think she is so amazing and brave and courageous. I am really blown away by her”), Bull’s role model was closer to home: her great-grandmother. She shared that her great-grandmother lived in her community all her life. She served as their de facto midwife, often delivering babies by dog sled. She also ran a small business, akin to a convenience store, out of the back of her house. It was the only business in the community, thus serving as a place everyone went to get their snacks and treats. “She was never an elected person in the community, but everybody came to her house to talk and ask her questions. She always had time for everyone.” Her great-grandmother lost her husband when she was still quite young, but her house was always full of people, as she raised several of her grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Bull shared “to me, she's someone that I just admire for her real authenticity…She lived into her nineties and the number of people that came to say their goodbyes was a real testament to what she had done. And there's so many of us who still talk about her.” Bull’s story is also a testament to how a leader need not be “official” or larger-than-life, but can be a member of our family or community whose tireless efforts to care for those around her, changes lives.