100 Chairs

Lesson: Find a Mentor or Two or Three; Learn from Them

Spectacular leadership fascinates me. It’s not a skill we all possess, or can even acquire.

Over time I have read a great deal of books on famous leaders of the past and present, all utterly intriguing – from Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill to Steve Jobs. And I have tried repeatedly to find mentors to learn from, again over time. I’d like to think this self-imposed education has paid off, I know at times it has and at times I fail. But I keep trying to improve and keep learning from my mistakes.

I am certain this education has paid off many times, one incident in particular comes to mind. It was a huge mistake I made not vetting a radio and it inadvertently upset the First Nation Elders I was working with. I should have reviewed the ad, but I was busy and didn’t bother to check to see if my copy was followed. It wasn’t. At 6 AM I woke to the first ad playing on my clock radio (dating myself here) and panic hit instantly. I called the radio station to pull the ad and then, with kids readying themselves for school, I jumped in my car to drive to the First Nation office in the adjacent town.

I arrived before the office opened and waited for people to arrive. Once the doors were unlocked, I went to the meeting room and sat, waiting. Sure enough, people started coming in and soon the table was full; people were upset, some cried, some expressed their anger. I humbly apologized.  I fixed the ad problem before I left home and now standing before the group of Elders, I bore full responsibility and faced the consequences. When we left the room, all was dealt with; we moved on, worked together for years and the issue never brought up again. Had I not taken this immediate and clear action, things would have ended differently.

Many people helped me understand how to lead and how to work in rural communities. A certain friend, who was the Minister of Finance and later the Premier of the Yukon, was always a person who I chose to learn from over many years. He had a wonderful story from his days representing his riding. As the Minister of Finance, he believed that all citizens should be tax-paying members of society, and this included First Nation people. Tax-exempt at the time, the numerous nations of the Yukon were negotiating self government agreements and he publicly stated his belief that eliminating the tax-exempt status was on the table. It was the responsibility of all citizens to pay taxes and support public expenditures we all benefit from.

This did not make him popular and one day he received a call from the community, mostly First Nation, to attend a meeting that night.  He jumped in the car and drove the 5 hours to the community hall. As he approached, he noticed almost every car in town was lining the road and the parking lot was over filled. The hall was packed and the meeting he walked into…100 chairs in a circle, and 1 chair in the middle of the circle.

The community leaders and members of the community were all in their seats, with people standing behind them. As he stood in the doorway, they let him know the chair in the middle was for him and they were going to have a discussion on taxes.

He stood his ground, never waivered and yes, tax-exempt status was removed. He stood by his principles, owned his actions, willing to bear the consequences. His political career continued for many years after that night, and I don’t think I ever saw him vary from his beliefs. A true leader.

There were 20 chairs in the meeting room when I stood to accept the consequence of my actions. I had it easy.


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.