Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a member of the first American team to compete in the fledgling judo competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In order to prepare for the Olympics, he moved to Japan to train, where he said he was the outsider, the newcomer. “You learn by watching and doing whatever the newbies did. I scrubbed uniforms, toilets. And they’re watching you. If you’re willing to do it, they treat you with respect.”
That’s not an easy thing to do – to subsume your ego for the greater good of your ultimate goals and earn the respect and assistance of others. Campbell told me most other Americans could or would not do so, and did not continue with their training in Japan, excepting two other Americans at Meiji on his Olympic squad: Paul Maruyama and Jim Bregman.
So many factors result in the seemingly random way successful people and leaders emerge. In addition to his high level of physical skills, Campbell’s emotional intelligence – his ability to show respect and humility in a new cultural milieu, to build relationships that will help him drive toward his and his colleagues’ goals – appears to be a key factor in the success he has had through his life. Campbell would serve in the House of Representatives and the US Senate for nearly 20 years. Broadly speaking, success is due to a mixture of skills, naturally gifted through DNA or developed through experience and effort, as well as circumstance and how one reacts to it.
While Campbell said that training in Japan was tough, in some ways, he had gone through even more challenging experiences as a child. He was the son of Albert Campbell who suffered from alcoholism, and of Mary Vierra, who had to live and work in a sanatorium much of her life due to her contraction of tuberculosis. Since his father struggled to find work, as did many during the Great Depression, and his mother could have only minimal contact with her children due to the contagiousness of her disease, both Ben and his sister Alberta Campbell had a nomadic childhood of foster homes and orphanages.
According to Campbell’s biography, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, the siblings grew up hungry, feeling abandoned, and had to negotiate the randomly rough relationships of life in the orphanage – situations ranging from disciplinary beatings and haranguing for not washing one’s hands to fear of sexual abuse. And because the orphanages would keep males and females separate, Ben and Alberta could not support each other as brother and sister during these complex emotional times.
As it turns out, Ben and Alberta had different reactions to these trying times. At the age of 44, Alberta overdosed and died on a potent combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. Ben somehow found lessons of life in his childhood struggles, as noted in his biography.
Sadly Alberta seems to have crumbled under the same pressure that made Ben strong. Although the orphanage experience may have contributed to her destruction, Ben thinks he benefited in some ways, “‘That must have been so terrible,’ people always tell me, but as I look back on it I think it was one of the best things that happened to me. It made me very self-reliant and independent. If you have nobody to rely on, then you have got to do it yourself.”
These were not lessons that were learned over night. An underachiever in school who would have run-ins with the police on occasion, Campbell eventually learned after a 2-week stint in juvenile lock up that he needed greater discipline and direction in his life. Campbell was 17 when he decided to enroll in the United States Air Force, where he served in The Korean War, and sharpened his judo acumen.
But there was always an inner dialogue taking place within Campbell, a key ingredient in honing a potent emotional intelligence. After the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell began to more strongly identify with his native Indian roots. As he explained in his biography, his father was Cheyenne, a native Indian tribe based in the Great Plains of the United States. Native Indians were an oft-discriminated peoples, and so Campbell kept his Cheyenne connection quiet, revealing it to his son only in his love for making jewelry. But it became important for Campbell, the Olympian, to better understand who his ancestors were, and thus who he was.
Campbell learned of his connection to a family line named Black Horse, and developed a deeply personal relationship with the Cheyenne. As successful people do, he understood the story of his life, how he connected to the past, and his obligations to his people in the present and the future. His love of the outdoors and art was not a random interest but a connection to a culture he was ingrained within to a degree he was not conscious of until late in adult life.
Self awareness in leadership is key. Campbell’s coach on the US men’s judo team of 1964, legendary judoka Yoshihiro Uchida, believed that Campbell was inspired to understand his roots during his time in Japan, according to Campbell’s bio:
I believe the time he spent there was a period where he learned a great deal more about himself as an American and as a Native American, because only when confronted with another culture do you truly begin to question and appreciate your own heritage.
Campbell is retired from politics, but running a successful jewelry business and still in good health and expectant to return to Japan in 2020, as are his teammates from the men’s judo team. For a kid from California, who grew up without a home, he now has three, real and symbolic – one in Colorado, another in Montana where his of Cheyenne family reside, and a third in Tokyo, where years of hard work first began to blossom.