Understanding the People We Lead

When we fail to appreciate the backgrounds of the people we lead and do not spend time studying their lives, we fail as leaders.

“How can what seems to be many really be one? How can what is one manifest as many? Just what is it that there are many of, and what is it that remains one throughout?”

― John O'Neill, The Fisherman's Tomb: The True Story of the Vatican's Secret Search

One of the more famous photographs taken during the 18th century captured a Comanche woman tightly clutching her daughter. The photo was prominently featured in several American history books for students to learn about the dangerous Wild West.

The only problem was that the woman was not a Comanche — she was Cynthia Ann Parker, a young lady of a privileged white family. Parker was captured at the age of 10 during a Comanche raid on her family’s compound and lost many of her relatives in the violent clash. For the next 24 years, she would live as a Comanche woman. She married a Comanche chief, had two sons and one daughter and integrated herself into the Comanche way of life. Her birth blood was Caucasian. But her lifeblood was Comanche.

In 1860, during the famous battle of The Pease River, Parker’s husband, Peta Nocona, died defending her. Parker would return to life in Texas, but once back home, she frequently attempted to run away, clinging to the Comanche culture she had grown to embrace.

Her family members thought Parker was mentally ill. No one could understand how or why she would ever want to return to that horrible way of life. But no one from Cynthia Ann Parker’s biological family really put forth the effort to understand her.

Everyone expected her to be happy because their way of life had to be the best. No one saw life from Cynthia’s point of view. This unique problem happens to all leaders and coaches. When we fail to appreciate the backgrounds of the people we lead and do not spend time studying their lives, we fail as leaders. We assume our followers are willing to walk in our direction because of our title and compensation package. That assumption fails us almost every time.

Leadership is about uniting people. Yet, how can we unite without understanding everyone’s background? Without a powerful connection gained through acknowledgment, we cannot motivate, develop trust, and, most of all, demand excellence. We become the boss, not the leader; the enforcer, not the influencer.

When recruiting talent for our team in any profession, we must be diligent in learning about different cultures within our base. If we want to have a diversified and inclusive group, the leader must have a complete understanding of the cultural imprints of those who join the organization.

Learn about the people you lead. Learn not only the names of their family members. But also learn their thought process and their heritage. It will allow you to understand how to get them to perform at their best.

Cynthia Ann Parker died misunderstood. She died away from her real Comanche family. And perhaps most tragic of all, she died with her maternal family never having appreciated the woman she had become.

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