The Capacity To Connect: How To Change People's Lives With Sustainable Innovation

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is the third largest Native American tribe in the U.S. and has grown into a prosperous governmental, commercial, health care, and social services organization. How?

This is a story of social innovation at the Choctaw Nation--the third largest Native American tribe in the United States.

There is a legend in Native American folklore about a dream of a former Choctaw Chief, Musholatubih (pronounced [Mush-ō-la-tub-ee]). In his dream, he was hunting a long time and unable to find food. The only game he could find was a single crow. Before he could eat it, a woman in despair interrupted him. The woman held out her hands and said, “I perish from hunger. Please give me food.” Musholatubih forgot his own hunger and gave her the crow. When the woman finished eating, she said, “You have saved my life, and I shall repay you. Come to this place one year from now and you will find your reward.” Musholatubih stood astonished as tiny pearls fell from her throat to the ground at her feet.

On the day he was to return, he neared the place where the woman had appeared. There stood plants that he had never seen before. They reached above his head and had tassels like a crown and broad green leaves. As he looked at them, he knew they were a gift. When he pulled back the coverings on the stalk, he found the same pearls that fell from the woman’s mouth in long rows full of juice. He called it tonchi, which was corn. After he roasted and tasted it, he knew the Choctaw would have plenty of food to sustain them for generations to come.

Prosperity Through Service

The lesson of Musholatubih and the legend of the tonchi that the Choctaw have carried through the generations is that they gain prosperity and plenty by serving and helping others. When Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle took office more than 16 years ago, the tribe was in disarray. The tribe was disjointed and overly dependent on the U.S. Federal government. Chief Pyle committed his leadership to the service of the Choctaw people.

His dedication paid off. Today, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has grown into a prosperous multifaceted government, commercial, health care, and social service organization. They are the third largest Native American tribe in the United States with over 200,000 members worldwide. They operate on a 12,000-square-mile land base second only to the Navajo in size—an area larger than the entire state of Massachusetts.

How did this happen? Chief Pyle took the same approach as Musholatubih. He invested in people. From their many commercial enterprises, the Choctaw pump over a quarter of a billion dollars every year into services for the Choctaw people—state-of-the-art health care, 5,000-plus college scholarships a year, 1,000-plus trained and placed annually in higher-paying careers, and housing modernization, just to name a few. These services are focused on creating healthy, successful, productive, and self-sufficient lifestyles for the Choctaw people. Add to that the more than 6,500 jobs created in a historically impoverished corner of rural Oklahoma, and the economic impact of the Choctaw Nation has been estimated in the billions of dollars.

Dr. Jake A. Dolezal, senior director of tribal research, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma explains:

“In light of U.S. federal government shutdowns and funding shortfalls and an unstable global economy, Pyle’s 100-year vision for the Choctaw is sustainability. He wants to see his tribe thrive, not just survive.

Chief Pyle and the leaders of the Choctaw Nation realized that, for the tribe to thrive for the next 100 years, sustainable change is required. And the change begins with the ability to influence, shape, and lead the people and the organizations that support them with collaborative and tangible enablement.”

The Capacity To Connect

If something sustains, it continues over a period of time. Living things grow. Sustainable growth for an organization requires leaders to act as a catalyst. What’s crucial, then, is to understand the nature of catalysis. When we recognize the constellation of relationships within an ecosystem, we can begin to understand their shared alignment. So seeing these relationships is one of the keys to catalysis.

I call this the capacity to connect to influence, shape, and lead. The Choctaw leadership aspired to transform its people’s lives. What they needed was to identify the path to get there by connecting with its people.

In order to influence, shape, and lead, Choctaw is utilizing a digital platform that brings people together socially to explore:

  • Demographic needs and priorities
  • Capabilities and capacities
  • Shared successes

In any organization, uninformed politics and inadequate communication can thwart a well-intended change effort—even more so considering the complex cultural map of the Choctaw landscape. This digital platform keeps their sights on what is positive and diminishes the negative.

This unique approach bi-directionally engages a wide audience with Choctaw’s leadership communication to drive organizational change. It enables the exploration and measurement of the organizational climate through all phases of the change curve. As a result, the Choctaw Nation is discovering that the depth and duration of short-term ill effects from the changes are not so deep or long lasting, and that the intended long-term benefits of the changes are coming about sooner than expected.

“Storytelling is an important and rich tradition for the Choctaw. Choctaw management utilizes this newly rolled-out digital social platform to share success stories that are resulting from the change.” --Dr. Jake A. Dolezal, senior director of tribal research, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Telling the story of change and success offers a continued focus on positive outcomes and what really matters.

Wisdom To Change

In Choctaw folklore, the owl is a harbinger of change. The lesson the Choctaw take from the owl is to make wise decisions in the face of change. Without understanding, there can be no wisdom, and without knowledge, there can be no understanding.

With an enterprise digital social platform, Choctaw Nation has created the “capacity to connect” its people to Chief Gregory E. Pyle’s 100-year vision of social innovation. The world has changed rapidly for the Choctaw over the past several centuries, but they have sustained and prospered by simultaneously embracing the tools they need and a true sense of their own identity. As long as they remain on this course, they will continue to positively shape their lives for generations to come.

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[Image: Flickr user Clinton Steeds]

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