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The Story of Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse)

What today's leaders can learn from the legendary Lakota chief


‚The Custer Fight‘ von Charles Marion Russell (Quelle: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

The year is 1876, in what is now the state of Montana. In the Battle of Little Bighorn, the highly technical U.S. Army led by George Armstrong Custer encounters numerous warriors of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota and Dakota Sioux. Among them the legendary chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (Ambrose, 2014).

Although the U.S. government had promised the indigenous peoples large areas of the Black Hills as reservations, treasure hunters entered the region in droves. The Black Hills are considered especially sacred to the Lakota, but this did not stop the U.S. government from enforcing its policy toward the Indian tribes by force, sending the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, led by George Armstrong Custer, into the area (Ambrose, 2014).

However, Custer and his regiment are devastatingly defeated by the Indians. The so-called Battle of Little Bighorn ranks among the greatest victories of the Indians against the U.S. Army (Ambrose, 2014; Langhof & Güldenberg, 2019).

Angeblich eine Skizze von Crazy Horse aus dem Jahr 1934 (Quelle: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain). Crazy Horse lehnte es vehemment ab fotografiert zu werden.

In our research project at the University of Liechtenstein, we found that not only did two completely different cultures clash in this battle, but also two completely different leadership styles. The historical case study, published in the Journal of Management History, revealed that Custer led in a very authoritarian, straight dictatorial manner, while his opponent Crazy Horse had a leadership style comparable to Robert Greenleaf's modern approach of servant leadership (Langhof & Güldenberg, 2019).

Our research further shows that especially in the absence of formalized organizational structures, servant leadership exerts a higher influence on followers than an authoritarian leadership style is able to do.

Thought Experiment

In our paper, we illustrated this with the following thought experiment: Suppose Custer told a subordinate to perform a certain task A. The first question is why this subordinate should perform this task at all. The subordinate performs the task because of the influence Custer has on him. This influence is roughly based on Custer's leadership style on the one hand and on the organizational structure of the US Army on the other hand. In order to get the subordinate to perform a certain task A, however, Custer relies primarily on the organizational structure regularities of the U.S. Army. The US Army had a highly formalized organizational structure. There were fixed hierarchies, the offense of disobeying orders, and harsh punishments imposed. In other words, Custer, relying on the organizational structure of the U.S. Cavalry, could be sure that his orders would be carried out. His leadership style, which contemporaries described as authoritarian and outright dictatorial, was therefore relatively insignificant in its influence. Crazy Horse, on the other hand, could not rely on such a formalized organizational structure. On the contrary. Crazy Horse had to constantly prove himself anew as a leader. He never held a position comparable to the formal position of a custer in the U.S. Army, for Lakota structures were relatively loose and little formalized or regulated. So, in other words, assuming Crazy Horse wanted to instruct his subordinate to perform the same task A (see above), he had to exert a higher influence than Custer through his leadership style. And indeed, he did (Langhof & Güldenberg, 2019).

How can this difference be explained?

We first looked at the leadership style of the two protagonists. Among his fellow tribesmen, Crazy Horse was considered introverted, reserved and reclusive. His leadership style was characterized above all by modesty and humility. This selflessness is probably due to his spirituality and a related feeling of serving his people. To protect his fellow tribesmen, he often rode first onto the battlefield in the so-called "Brave Run", directing the hail of bullets at himself.

After hunts, he is said to have regularly distributed the good meat to the sick and needy first, while being content with the sinewy meat himself. Our research suggests that the difference in influence can be explained primarily by the trust Crazy Horse was able to build through his leadership style. Because of the high level of trust, his fellow tribesmen followed him into the most dangerous battles (Langhof & Güldenberg, 2019).

Despite the great victory, the battle could not prevent the decline of the indigenous peoples. The U.S. military mercilessly fought the last free Lakota and Cheyenne in their war, including depriving them of their livelihoods by eradicating the bison herds that were vital to them (Ambrose, 2014; Depkat, 2016).

What are the implications for organizations?

The research findings from the historical case study indicate that, particularly in the absence of or insufficiently formalized organizational structures, Servant Leadership has a greater impact on employees than an authoritarian management style.

As a result, companies with servant leadership and a Servant Leadership culture have less need for bureaucracy, regulations and rules. Transaction costs can be significantly reduced as a result (Langhof & Güldenberg, 2019).

Servant Leadership today

Today, servant leadership is used in numerous companies. The spectrum of areas of application ranges from diaconal institutions and universities to medium-sized companies and large multinational corporations. In the literature, for example, Starbucks is considered a well-known company in which servant leadership is practiced (Hartmann, 2013).

Leaders who practice Servant Leadership are particularly empathetic towards their employees and their situation. That is, mistakes are not immediately condemned, but rather seen as opportunities to learn and grow (Brommer et al., 2019; Russell, 2019).


How can Lemin help leaders practice servant leadership and establish a culture of servant leadership?

Lemin is the only manufacturer on the market to offer a software solution that supports companies in successfully and sustainably shaping their culture and leadership development process in the direction of a servant leadership culture. In doing so, the solution offers a permanent indicator for the teams. Targeted coaching elements support change measures and ensure their success.

Would you like to learn more about Lemin and the topic of Servant Leadership? Then let's talk. Click on the link to have a look at my calendar. Choose a date that suits you. I am looking forward to meeting you.


Ambrose, S. E. (2014). Crazy horse and Custer: The parallel lives of two American warriors. Open Road Media.

Brommer, D., Hockling, S., & Leopold, A. (2019). Faszination New Work 50 - Impulse für die neue Arbeitswelt. Springer Gabler.

Depkat, V. (2016). Geschichte der USA. Verlag W. Kohlhammer.

Hartmann, M. (2013). Servant Leadership in Diakonischen Unternehmen. Verlag W. Kohlhammer.

Langhof, J. G., & Güldenberg, S. (2019). Leadership and the significance of formalized organizational structures. Journal of Management History, 25(3), 341–363.

Russell, E. J. (2019). In command of guardians: Executive servant leadership for the community of Responders (2nd ed.). Springer.


Illustration 1: 'The Custer Fight' by Charles Marion Russell (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

Illustration 2: Supposedly a sketch of Crazy Horse from 1934 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain). Crazy Horse vehemently refused to be photographed.

Illustration 3: Custer, probably around 1865 (source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).


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