Mindful of the Past, Yarlott Leads with an Eye to the Future

Volume 23, No. 4 - Summer 2012
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GRACEFUL LEADERSHIP. Little Big Horn College President David Yarlott not only leads, by weighing decisions carefully and with an eye to the future, but also inspires leadership in others. United Tribes photo by Dennis J. Neumann

As I entered the President’s Office in the Administration Building at Little Big Horn College (LBHC, Crow Agency, MT), Dr. David Yarlott, Jr. extended his hand to greet me. His warm eyes and genuine smile eased my nervousness. Rather than speaking to me from behind his desk, he guided me to a table where we could sit face to face. While considering the answers to my questions, he would often gaze out the window toward the horizon. It seemed to me as though he were speaking not only for himself, but for his people— and that he felt proud and grateful to serve as an educational leader on the Crow Reservation.

Yarlott (Crow/Korean) has served as the president of Little Big Horn College on Montana’s Crow Reservation since July 2002. He is a member of the Crow Tribe’s Greasy Mouth Clan. Yarlott is also a first-generation college student who has become an outstanding advocate of education, particularly for American Indians. He earned three degrees from Montana State University- Bozeman, including his doctorate of education in 1999. Dr. Yarlott has served as dean, department head, and faculty member at Little Big Horn College—and he also attended the school as a student. He has chaired the American Indian College Fund and has served as the Board Chair for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) for the past three years.

I interviewed Yarlott on the topic of ethical leadership. His answers, he told me, were based not only on his standing in the community or his position of leadership, but also on his own values and beliefs. Included below are excerpts from my interview with Yarlott.

What it means to be “ethical” in a leadership position in higher education:

Being ethical means “doing the right thing in the environment you are working in or living in,” says Yarlott, who points out any decision will affect many different people. That means it’s important to “do the right thing”— “whether it is according to regulations, policy or law but also what you feel in your heart.”

Yarlott continues: “Being at a tribal college, we have to consider our culture. We have to consider our economic environment. We have to consider our social environment. It might be quite different if I worked off the reservation.”

On how the broader community influences his leadership:

“With our traditions and our culture, we do a lot of activities outside the college community, and we have to be mindful of our clan systems—what our clan elders will be thinking—(and) how our decisions affect our clan children,” he says, pointing out that decisions will affect not only the tribal college and its current students, but also “our children, our grandchildren, and those that are still to come.”

He adds: “We practice the clan system even in our events here on campus. We prepare our students to go on to the four-year colleges or the workplace, but also to come back to our community and our culture. Language and traditions are very important to us.”

Learning about ethical leadership:

Yarlott says he didn’t learn about ethical leadership through a formal structure, but rather was raised that way by his parents, relatives, and clan elders. “They taught me what was wrong or right or unacceptable,” he says. “Throughout my experiences, as I sat in the classroom, I would think back to how our tribal leaders would make decisions based on what we know today.”

He adds that American Indians must live in “both worlds,” and that in order to survive off the reservation, they must incorporate both those worlds into their lives. For his part, he grew stronger by looking at both sides of a situation and deciding what might work best for a particular situation. “I liken it to steak,” he says: “We take out the choice parts. We don’t eat the fat or the bones; we take out what is best for that situation.”

Growing up and hearing stories about leadership and “doing the right thing”

“Most of it was through my father, (and) my uncles, as we were growing up,” he says. “My father would teach me in anything that you do, do the best thing that you can. And whatever you do, do the thing that affects the most people because you are not going to make everybody happy.”

On experiencing clashes of culture or differing definitions of ethics:

“It’s a matter of values and beliefs,” he says. “As a tribal college leader some of the things I value are not valued by other institutions or mainstream colleges.”

He cites competition as one example: Mainstream society is more aggressive, whereas tribal communities place an emphasis on sharing. “Sometimes we have conflicts in that situation. We are taught at an early age that when somebody speaks, you don’t interrupt. In the mainstream when you want to say something you have to butt in and say what you want to say. I still struggle with that. Most times I will sit back and listen to what other people have to say. Most times I have something I want to add but I will show respect and not interrupt.”

More thoughts on ethical leadership:

“If you are in a role of leadership and you are going to accept the responsibilities, you have to be willing to take personal risks in your decision making,” he says. “At times, that is giving up something of yourself in order to benefit the majority of the people.”

It’s important that leaders make decisions based on the “here and now” and on how those decisions will affect people in the future. “Sometimes we think about how it is impacting us for today, but we have to have the ability to look into the future and see how it is going to affect the people to follow,” he says. “Sometimes that is hard. Giving up something now in order to make it better tomorrow is something we need to think about. (We must) be willing to take a certain amount of risk in order to improve lives or the quality of living to make it better for the people.”

Heidi Sherick is the assistant dean of the College of Engineering and Director of the Engineering Minority Program (EMPower) at Montana State University. She studies higher education leadership and is earning a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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