indicatorPeople and Culture

Four teachings to cultivate your leadership skills from Indigenous entrepreneur Kendal Netmaker

By ATB Financial 26 January 2021 5 min read

“To be an effective leader, you have to work on yourself,” says Kendal Netmaker, CEO and founder of Neechie Gear, four-time entrepreneur of the year, public speaker, and leadership coach.  

“Each and every one of us has a unique set of talents, gifts and abilities that—if we use them—allow us to be successful and live our purpose,” 

Netmaker grew up in Sweetgrass First Nation, Saskatchewan, where he and his three younger sisters were raised by their single mother with the support of his kokum. Netmaker credits these women with teaching him critical lessons about personal leadership rooted in his Indigenous culture. “As Indigenous leaders, it is always about the community. How we survived in the past was by prospering together. A person would take the lead and he or she would sacrifice their needs, wants and desires so everyone could succeed,” he says. 

Netmaker shared these lessons on cultivating leadership skills at a Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (Cando) Links to Learning Webinar Series. Cando is a national Indigenous organization focused on community economic development and capacity-building through programs and services to economic development officers and the Indigenous communities they serve. 

These are Netmaker’s four teachings to cultivate your leadership skills.


1. Don’t react—respond.


“One of the things that my kokum would say is that Native people have a very simple way of living, and if you want to be a successful leader, one of the main teachings is to respond as opposed to react to life's events,” says Netmaker. 

This means not reacting too emotionally, angrily or negatively to the things that happen in your life. Instead, pause for a moment, reflect on the situation and then determine the ideal way to respond. 

“When someone comes to you with negative words or they are challenging you, you don't have to react to that, but you [have to] respond,” says Netmaker. “You can take the higher route. You don’t have to absorb their negativity. If someone gives you a gift and you don't accept that gift, who does that gift go to? It has to go back to the person that sent it to you. It’s the same thing with words. If someone says something to you that you don't like, you don't have to accept that. It can go right back to that person.”

He adds that it’s helpful to remember that a person’s disrespectful behaviour can be a sign they are struggling. “Sometimes the way that they approach you might be because inside they're fighting [themselves]. They're crying for help, so it comes off as negative and inappropriate,” he says. 

It takes courage to build this mindset, he says, but it is worth it. The less you react impulsively to the people and events around you, the more you will be to make positive and productive choices. 


2. To respect others, you have to respect yourself 


“We were meant to live in harmony with every living thing that has a spirit,” says Netmaker.“In order to do that, you have to respect one another. And to respect one another, you have to respect yourself. You have to love yourself.”

For him, respecting yourself includes taking responsibility for any less-than-ideal choices you’ve made in the past and recognizing how these are negatively impacting the goals you want to achieve or the life you want to lead. 

When it comes to leadership skills, respecting yourself and others means approaching every person with humility, Netmaker says. “When you’re leading people, if you can come from a place where you’re being humble, that has a direct impact on how people listen to you. When you talk to people from that perspective, you are being respectful and people will listen,” he says. 


3. Forgive on the fly.


Netmaker says when he was younger he would watch how his kokum would interact with people visiting her home.

“Sometimes people would come to her home intoxicated. They would be inappropriate. They’d be disrespectful. But she never reacted,” he recalls. “She was just very quiet and very humble. She would be nice to those people. She would forgive on the fly.”

Netmaker says watching his kokum in these interactions taught him that when people behave badly it’s important to remember that it is often not about you—it’s about them. That person is going through something. 

“If you can develop the ability to forgive on the fly, you are going to be a very impactful leader because you are telling yourself, ‘It's not about me,’” he says. “But that doesn't mean I don't have to be nice to [others]. That doesn't mean I don't have to treat them with respect. You don't turn people away if someone wants help or someone comes to you for guidance. They see something in you so they're coming to you.”

Forgiveness in the moment allows you to tap into your compassion faster and try to help people.


4. Be willing to sacrifice. 


When Netmaker was five, his mother left his father. He remembers moving into a two-bedroom house after a series of nights in women’s shelters. Netmaker got one of the bedrooms while his three sisters shared the other. When he asked her where she would sleep, she pointed to the couch. “She slept on that couch up until I graduated high school,” he says. 

Netmaker says his mother slept on the couch because leaders like her make sacrifices so other people can grow and succeed. “I am a product of that leadership decision,” he says. “Each and every one of us are a product of the people who have raised us. If we don't like how things are or how they've happened, we have the ability to change it for the people that we know and for future generations.”

Netmaker says if you want to be a successful leader, you have to be willing to sacrifice. “Great leaders are willing to sacrifice, put other people first and serve those around them. When people make that decision to serve, they're sacrificing their own little needs, wants, desires so that everyone—their whole community—can win,” he says. 

Netmaker says that he is inspired to be a better leader by people like his mother, his kokum and all the previous generations before him. 

“Think about all the people that have come before you. Think about all of the things that our ancestors had to do so we can have opportunities to succeed,” he says. “If you think about all the sacrifice—all the people who sacrificed their lives, their culture, their language—so that we can have a moment like this, it forces you to be grateful. It forces you to really harness what you have so that you can move forward in a good way.


To learn more about Kendal, visit


If you’re looking for a deep dive on everything you need to know around how to grow your business, our entrepreneur strategists are here to explore where you are with your business, where you want to be, and how to get there!

Are you ready to expand your business?

A four part series on growing and scaling your business. No matter how you choose to build, we’ve got you covered.

Need help?

Our Business Support team will be happy to assist.