By Tim Gebhart 4:29 am PST

Leaders are often defined as someone who takes command or shows the way for others. A good leader is often thought of as someone others would want to emulate and follow willingly, someone that would guide them in a positive and healthy direction, and who would put others needs first before their own. A good leader is someone whom others would trust their lives with. Crazy Horse was a native American that was part of the Oglala Lakota tribe who grew up in the 1840s on the vast windswept plains in America who embodied the traits of a good leader.

Crazy Horse had extraordinary skills in combat that attracted fighting men to his side. Crazy Horse never lost a battle that he was leading. That, along with his fearlessness and calm composure in combat made him a legendary warrior known around the world. It was his quiet, humble, and compassionate nature that won him the respect of his tribe, however. Crazy Horse’s only goal was the safety and survival of his people. He had no title, but others followed and trusted his judgement without question.

In the 1860’s like all other Lakota boys growing up in the high plains of the United States, Crazy Horse had been raised under the protection and care of his mother, aunts, and sisters until the age of around six. They instilled in Lakota boys the virtue of empathy, a sense of belonging, and an indomitable confidence in themselves. The young Crazy Horse grew up in the same way, but would soon enter adulthood and find himself playing a major role in leading his tribe against the U.S. army and the settlers who had been for decades further encroaching on their vast homeland, disrupting their way of life, and who committed genocidal crimes against his people. In these circumstances, decisions made were of life or death. Crazy Horse became a man others trusted to guide them through their darkest suffering.

From the Spirit, The Life of Crazy Horse

From a young age, Crazy Horse would often prefer to be alone with his thoughts far from the village. He had often been taunted and teased by the other boys in his tribe because of his appearance. Crazy Horse’s name growing up had been Light Hair because of his unusual wavy and brown hair. He did not retaliate against the other boys, but instead shrugged off their insults. A few elders took note of his unusual behavior and thought he had an aptitude towards the spiritual matters in life.

American Indian Crazy Horse
Eanger Irving Couse, “A Vision of the Past”, 1913, oil on canvas. Part of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Crazy Horse grew up in a time where his people and ways of life were threatened with annihilation. The situation called for him and his tribe to become extraordinary people. Crazy Horse became a legend for his fighting ability throughout the world, but his calm and compassionate spirit won the affection of his tribe. They followed his selfless lead without hesitation.


He had been trained by a few of the elders to be a Heyoka, or a “sacred clown.” They were shamans or medicine men who did everything backwards. As a Heyoka then, Crazy Horse was not to make a name for himself. He was to be a contrarian in many aspects of life as part of the Lakota tribe. He would dedicate himself wholly to the spiritual path, and he must always think of others first in everything he did.

The young Crazy Horse also had many dreams or visions that predicted and guided his life. He knew he would never live to an old age. His dreams had revealed to him he would die young, and in an atypical way, partly at the hands of a few of his own people. This vision would play a significant role in his life. He lived with intensity and without fear, knowing his death was not far away.

In a few of his first skirmishes with nearby tribes, Crazy Horse proved himself to be a capable warrior. He was the first into the fray and fought with intensity, but without brashness. In capturing horses and weapons in battle, however, he did not keep them for himself, but walked around his village to the old, weak, or families who lost a loved one and gave the spoils of war to them. After battles, it was customary for the men to boast of their deeds in battle. Crazy Horse, following his calling as a Heyoka, was nowhere to be found.

He lived by a code that kept him from material pursuits, or of seeking fame. He was embarrassed by the attention he received as his legend grew. He was more than willing to give others credit for any victory. He trained constantly to be as skilled a warrior as he could be, not for glory, but so he could be able to do his duty as best he could to protect his people.


The Traits of a Leader

Joseph Marshall III, a Lakota himself, had written several books on the life of Crazy Horse based on stories passed down and first-hand accounts from the elders in his tribe. In “The Power of Four: Leadership Lessons of Crazy Horse,” Joseph Marshall told many stories from Crazy Horse’s life that highlighted his exceptional character.

There is a Lakota saying, “there is a horse for every occasion.” This saying meant that everyone and everything has characteristics that suits them more to a certain function than others. Joseph Marshall described that to ensure every task was done as best it could, Crazy Horse would often study his fellow warriors to find out what abilities they had, and where they excelled. Some were better at tracking, fighting, riding, some knew the lay of the land better, some were brash, others cautious. Crazy Horse patiently observed and selected the best people for each situation. He put them in a setting where they felt more confident and were likely to do well.

Also, never taking any credit for any victories or boasting of himself, Crazy Horse instead built others up and created a sense of camaraderie within the ranks of his warriors. Others were confused when he took up young and inexperienced boys and led them on scouting missions into enemy territory or hunting expeditions. There was no honor in it for him, but he knew they were the future of the tribe, and he wanted them to develop themselves and create a trust and bond with each other and saw to it that they became skilled and confident in themselves.

American India, Crazy Horse
The shirt Crazy Horse wore to symbolize that he was a moral, and spiritual leader of his tribe.

Crazy Horse set high expectations for himself but did not always live up to them. He was quick to admit his mistakes, however. He was said to be quiet and awkward around others. Approaching the first love of his life, Black Buffalo Woman, was probably a feat of courage for him. She chose him as a partner, but her parents disagreed. They wanted Black Buffalo Woman to marry No Water, a man who was part of an influential family like herself. Crazy Horse had no choice but to let go of the love of his life.

Years later, Black Buffalo Woman suffered through an unhappy marriage with No Water and went back to Crazy Horse. He accepted her embrace of him and they stayed together. No Water became furious and stormed into Crazy Horse’s tipi and shot him in the face, nearly killing him. The tribe had been divided and angered in this dispute with some in support of or against Crazy Horse and his actions. Crazy Horse once again gave up Black Buffalo Woman to settle the tribe down and avoid more conflict. He also gave up his shirt and the title of shirt bearer on his own accord, feeling he did not live up to its standards.


In Crazy Horse’s life, one event signified his humble and selfless spirit above all others. After many battles with the U.S. army, sometimes horribly outnumbered, always out gunned and low on ammunition, and with women and children in tow, he led his tribe to many victories. He knew however, that this was a war that couldn’t be won. Were the consequences of fighting only to befall the warriors of the tribe, they would have fought to the bitter end, and won many more victories. But Crazy Horse needed to think of the elders, the women, and children in his tribe.

After their last battle on January 8th, 1877 on Wolf Mountain in Montana, Crazy Horse and his tribe struggled to survive the cold winter. The buffalo and most of the large game that were at one time plentiful were hunted to near extinction by the settlers pouring into their lands. Crazy Horse decided in the best interests of his people, and to ensure the protection of the children and elderly, that he and his warriors would surrender. At Fort Robinson in Nebraska, Crazy Horse and the warriors of his tribe gathered at the fort. The U.S. soldiers under General Crook motioned them to hand over their weapons, and then their horses.

The tense moment at the fort where the Lakota men had to give up their spirits, their pride, their livelihood lasted quite a while. It must have been the toughest decision any of them ever had to make. They were all some of the most capable warriors to have ever lived, but they had to accept defeat, and one without a glorious death in battle, to ensure the survival of their people. Crazy Horse led by example. He was the first to surrender his weapons, and then his horse. The other warriors followed.

Soon after at the age of 36, upon being detained at the fort, Crazy Horse resisted being put in confinement. He was held down by a few of his own people as a U.S. soldier stabbed him with a bayonet. Crazy Horse’s prophecy came true, he died young and partly at the hands of his own people. He also prophetically said before he died that he would come back to his people in stone. The Crazy Horse monument started to be carved 71 years later in the Black Hills. The monument is a repository of Native American culture, ensuring its continuation. It also highlights the selfless character and extraordinary leadership abilities of Crazy Horse, that through the monument, still guides his people.