Leadership Lessons from Pocahontas

On this day, in 1614, the Indian Princess Pocahontas was married to English settler John Rolfe.

In May of 1607, 100 or so colonists from England founded Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in America. One of these early settlers was John Smith, a captain who helped direct the settlements survival efforts. From the beginning, Jamestown found life in the new world extremely difficult. They suffered disease, famine, and frequent attacks by the native Indians led by Chief Powhatan.

In December of 1607, Smith and two others were out exploring and mapping a nearby river when they were captured and taken to Powhatan’s village. Smith’s two companions were killed, but according to his accounts he was spared and released because Pocahontas begged her father to show mercy.

Pocahontas began acting as a liaison between the natives and the settlers, bringing them food and learning their customs. A tentative peace was established. Things seemed to be looking up for the settlers.

But in 1609 Smith was injured in an accident and had to return to England. Without his influence, the relationship with Pocahontas and the Indians faltered. Things steadily deteriorated and that winter was especially hard. Many settlers died.

John Rolfe didn’t come to Jamestown until 1610. He introduced the concept of tobacco farming to the settlers and the friendly natives. Hoping to regain a peaceful relationship, Pocahontas once again took on the role of ambassador. The tenuous peace strengthened yet again.

Three years later, in 1613, a new English Captain named Samuel Argall arrived. Seeking to force a more permanent peace agreement, he took Pocahontas hostage. He then demanded the Indian Chief agree to a more favorable treaty in order to secure her release. By this time, however, Pocahontas and John Rolfe had already fallen in love. She converted to Christianity, taking the name Rebecca. And 398 years ago today they were married, solidifying the peace between their two people.

I find it interesting that one person could have so much influence. Here are two cultures that couldn’t be more different. Their customs, religions, goals, and even language were all different. But Pocahontas took it upon herself to bridge the gap. She saw the potential benefit to both groups in working together.

I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds a lot like today’s workplace. The differences between departments – differences in customs, beliefs, goals, and even language – often lead to silos. Employees can find themselves competing for resources, viewing those from other areas as the enemy. This organizational conflict usually has a negative impact on everyone involved.

It’s pretty easy to recognize these siloed workplaces. Frontline employees don’t have the resources they need to assist the customer. Support departments working in isolation develop duplicate processes and then blame each other when something goes wrong.

But all it takes is one person to reach across the gulf to change all that. One person with the desire to find common ground – that win-win scenario. Here’s how to lead like Pocahontas.

See the bigger picture. Pocahontas was able to look beyond the differences between her people and the English settlers. She could see that, despite the barriers presented by appearance, religion, and language, these were just people trying to make a life for themselves. They weren’t evil or even necessarily wrong, just different.

Be willing to stick your neck out. It had to take a lot of nerve for Pocahontas to intervene in the killing of John Smith. Going against the will of the Chief, even for his daughter, wasn’t normal. But she knew that a chance at peace and mutual benefit was more desirable than war.

Keep working at it. The on-again, off-again peace between the settlers and the Indians had to be tiring. Over the years, I’m sure she wondered if things would ever get better. It would be so much easier to just view the other side as the enemy and wipe them out. The constant threat of war, especially after her capture, had to weigh heavily on both sides. But Pocahontas was persistent in her attempts to build a relationship. She knew that the long-term benefits were worth the effort.

Realize the benefits may be far greater than you think. Pocahontas set out to build a relationship between her people and the awkwardly dressed, foreign speaking colonists. I doubt she thought love would enter the picture. In the end, she not only accomplished her objective, but reaped personal rewards as well.

I think every organization needs a Pocahontas (if not several). Is there one in your organization? Is it you?

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