10 Leadership Lessons From CEOs of Tribal Enterprises and Native-Owned Businesses

Left to right: Stephanie A. Bryan, Tribal Chair & CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians; Jason Campbell, CEO of Sovereign Power; Kenneth Manuel, CEO of Gila River Hotels & Casinos; and Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel

Strong Leadership Is the Ultimate Strategic Advantage in Business — Now, More So Than Ever

Leadership assumes a new kind of responsibility in seasons of trial and tribulation. Times of uncertainty and change test our willpower, integrity, resilience and grit. Not only must leaders possess these qualities innately, they must exemplify them, and harness them to guide, motivate and imbue courage and faith in their team members. A team is only as strong as its weakest link. 

Many of the CEOs and business founders that Native Business has interviewed over the years have spoken to the power of clarity of vision. The core values of their Tribal Nation, Tribal enterprise or business serve as the guiding force behind their leadership — and their ability to inspire their teams to greatness. 

READ MORE: 10 Tips From Native Business Founders & Leaders to Up-and-Coming Entrepreneurs 

Those same values have steered their pathways forward, as they respond and innovate throughout the global pandemic and economic recession. 

READ MORE: From Edtech to Coffee Shops: Businesses to Start During a Recession

Below we revisit the insights of several CEOs at some of the largest and most successful Tribal Nations, Tribal enterprises and Native-owned businesses across the United States. Because we all need inspiration, tools and strategies for effective leadership now, more than ever. 

Here are 10 leadership lessons from CEOs of Tribal enterprises and Native-owned businesses:

1) Anchor in Your Vision 

“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in — it goes back to the core vision and goals,” says Kenneth Manuel, Gila River Hotels & Casinos’ CEO. 

Gila River Hotels & Casinos encompasses three properties in Arizona, and Manuel, a Tribal member, has been key in the creation and operation of them all: Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino, Lone Butte Casino, and Vee Quiva Hotel & Casino.

Anchoring the entire team in the vision is fundamental to success. “I’m a big believer in team,” Manuel adds. “I understand 100% that no one succeeds alone. I give all my credit to the team. I give all the credit to my Community.” 

READ MORE: From Slots to the C-Suite: Kenneth Manuel, Jr., CEO, Gila River Hotels & Casinos 

2) The Leader Sets the Tone

“I can’t emphasize enough: you’re the leader. And by leading everyday, it sets the tone for years to come,” says D. Dave Wililams, President and CEO of Missouri River Resources. 

Back in 2010, Williams, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, convinced then-Chairman Tex Hall to grant a resolution for Williams to start Missouri River Resources, the MHA Nation’s privately owned oil and gas company, located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in Western North Dakota.

“I’m a can-do-it guy,” Williams says. And so are his employees. 

READ MORE: Sovereignty by the Barrel: D. Dave Williams, President and CEO, Missouri River Resource 

3) Mornings Matter

A trail run starts the morning for Jason Campbell, CEO of Sovereign Power, a company tasked with creating energy sovereignty for the Spokane Tribe of Indians. The benefits of asserting energy sovereignty are enormous: reservation jobs are created and the cost of the Tribe’s monthly utility bills are radically reduced. 

READ MORE: The Nation Builder: Jason Campbell Gives All his Energy to Advancing Spokane Sovereignty 

But it all begins with a run. “That really helps me set the tone for the day,” says Campbell, who spends his free time elk hunting, fly fishing and exploring the wilderness. 

But most of the time, he’s “Nation building,” which means he’s moving the needle forward on various Tribal energy projects.

READ MORE: The Morning Routines of 3 Business Leaders in Indian Country 

4) Listen & Learn

For Dennis Fitzpatrick, the founding CEO of the Blackfeet Nation-owned Siyeh Corporation, the secret to success is the ability to simply listen. 

“I believe that my job is to be a skilled listener and analyze all the information I can before I make a decision,” says Fitzpatrick. 

Under his leadership, Siyeh Corporation has soared economically with eight successful enterprises, including a telecommunication company, cultural center, water and sewer utility, casinos, grocery store, hotel and fuel center.

READ MORE: Siyeh Corporation CEO Dennis Fitzpatrick Says Leaders Need to Be Good Listeners 

5) Diversify Revenue Streams

Since Stephanie A. Bryan was elected Tribal Chair & CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in 2014, she has helped the Tribe to create a diversified economic development plan built on sustainable principles.

“We believe it is a road map that will continue to provide jobs and economic stability for our Tribe and our neighbors throughout the state,” she tells Native Business. 

Diversifying the Tribe’s portfolio helped to insulate it through economic recessions. 

“Gaming gave us the opportunity to become self-sufficient, but we are focused on building a portfolio of businesses that can weather economic downturns, grow, and provide stable incomes for people across Alabama,” she adds.  

READ MORE: Stephanie A. Bryan, Poarch Band Tribal Chair & CEO, Is Improving Quality of Life Through the Family Business 

6) Turn a Quick Profit + Plan Long-Term

Mark Hubble (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) leads Kituwah, LLC, an arm of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians created in 2019 to acquire businesses to help diversify revenue beyond reservation-based gaming.

READ MORE: The Economic Driver: Mark Hubble, CEO of Kituwah, LLC 

When Kituwah launched, his focus was turning an immediate profit, while simultaneously considering a long-term plan. 

“We balance the projects that are going to take a little longer to get profitable with projects that will be profitable very quickly,” Hubble tells Native Business. 

He pointed to the strategy of a successful, multi-billion-dollar investor for inspiration: “I like Warren Buffett’s philosophies in general — seek value and think long term,” Hubble says. 

READ MORE: Kituwah, LLC Focuses on 4 Key Priorities for Growth & Sustainability 

7) Value Your Team Members

Brian Decorah (Ho-Chunk) says his favorite business advice is: “A person that feels appreciated, will always do more than what is expected of them.” 

Decorah adds, “The most influential motivator is feeling valued. I love seeing a team member’s face light up when I am able to share with them how their efforts make an impact.”

(Decorah was serving as the CEO of Snoqualmie Casino when Native Business interviewed him as one of our Top 30 CEOs.) 

8) Push Past Your Comfort Zone

Angela Heikes, President and CEO of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Gaming Enterprise, challenges aspiring executives: “Take advantage of every opportunity to broaden your skills and experiences, find a mentor who will challenge you and be your champion, and always be open to taking on projects that you think are a bit beyond your comfort zone.”

READ MORE: Angela Heikes, SMSC Gaming Enterprise CEO, Leads With Trust & Gratitude 

9) Lean In  

To hone his leadership skills, Kip Ritchie, President and CEO of Greenfire Management Services, participates in a CEO roundtable called Convene. “It also pulls in my faith, which can be very beneficial in leading an organization,” says Ritchie, a Forest County Potawatomi Tribal member.

Ritchie also frequently reads business and team management books, such as those by Patrick Lencioni and John Maxwell. When it comes to podcasts, you can catch him listening to StartupCamp, Ultimate Entrepreneur and the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast, featuring conversations designed to help leaders go further, faster.

READ MORE: The Family Man: President/CEO Kip Ritchie on Managing ‘Community Transforming Projects’ at Greenfire 

10) True Leadership Is Service 

Whether you’re serving shareholders or customers or both, true leadership lies in service to a greater purpose. 

As Doyon, Limited’s President and CEO Aaron Schutt tells Native Business, the best part of his job is being able to help people and see an impact. “I love working for our shareholders,” he says. “Although we have more than 20,000, I have many friends and relatives in that group. Even for those I don’t know personally, I appreciate the opportunity to work for our people.”

READ MORE: Meet Doyon, Limited’s President and CEO Aaron Schutt 

Meanwhile Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, spends each day in service to FireKeepers’ patrons. “What we do isn’t rocket science,” she says. “We just want to treat people well.”

“One of the quotes that I have learned to build into my life, both outside of work and at work, is by E. M. Statler,” she continues. “‘Life is service – the one who progresses is the one who gives a little more – a little better service.’”  

READ MORE: A Genuinely Effective Leader: Kathy George, CEO, FireKeepers Casino Hotel 

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