Letter from Langdon: Made Leaders

[imgbelt img=leaders-sandbag468.jpg]Are leaders born that way? Richard Oswald doesn’t think so. They’re inspired by calamity and trained to encourage others.


Daily Mail

A team of volunteers in Canton, Missouri, stacked sandbags on the levee, to hold back the flooding Mississippi River, June 2008.

Sometimes leaders rise to the surface like cream in a bucket of fresh milk. That’s where I was in ‘93, fighting for control, riding on a wagon load of sandbags in rising flood water that was nearly waist deep …and looking for leadership.

When we reached our destination aboard that wagon — a lonely stretch of levee — light from regular flashes of lightning exposed the top of the levee – nearly indistinguishable from the water level.
There were three of us on that wagon, plus the tractor driver who had driven us in there. We started looking for a place to lay the sandbags. One fellow-sandbagger walked to one side of the levee, while another one went the opposite direction. I just stood there with a sand bag in each hand, watching. Soon, a lengthy discussion ensued between the other two about where the proper place for the sandbags might be.

We really needed a leader.

Maybe it was the tiring weight of the sandbags, the imminent presence of the flood, or the lightning crackling in the air. I’ll never know for sure. But at that very moment I rose to the challenge like 5% Grade A butterfat.

I dropped my bags squarely on a trickle of water oozing its way toward what little dry ground we had left. “We need to put them here,” I said with authority.

Every so often I remember with pride that brief moment of clarity while fire and water danced in the sky. Since then I’ve wondered what really makes a leader.

When a friend of mine, Robert, suggested I take a leadership course I wasn’t sure whether I should be flattered or offended. After all, I’d fought the river and won. What else is there to know?

But as Robert knew, I’d also fought in a political race and lost.

As it turned out, Robert wasn’t being judgmental: he was on a membership-committee recruiting mission and had a job to do. That’s when I looked into Leadership Northwest Missouri (LNWMO). 

LNWMO was started in 1999 as a way to connect potential movers and shakers into a network that might benefit everyone in largely rural Northwest Missouri. It’s about networking, community development, and encouraging people according to the teachings of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.

Authors Kouzes and Possner say “Leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior.” They outlines the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership:

1.      Model the Way
2.      Inspire a Shared Vision
3.      Challenge the Process
4.      Enable Others to Act
5.      Encourage the Heart

LNWMO holds classes each year. There’s a tuition charge of $650 to take the six-month course that concludes with a graduation dinner. (At first, $650 sounds like a lot, but it included meals, hotel rooms, plus a ride on Amtrak from Kansas City to Jefferson City and, more importantly, back again.) Participants’ tuition is generally paid by employers who want to encourage, inspire, and challenge their employees. Some who take part are in government, some are in private enterprise, and a few like me are self-employed.

fairly common. In Minnesota there’s a two-year class called MARL, short for Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program. Its goal is to develop the skills of Minnesota agricultural and rural leaders to maximize their effectiveness in local, state, national, and international efforts.

Tuition for MARL is considerably higher — $2000 — even though the cost is subsidized through MARL’s fundraising. Otherwise the tuition cost might be even more.

Another agriculture leadership class I learned of, Illinois Agricultural Leadership Foundation, has some big names on its board of directors. I’m talking about corporate agribusiness. These are definitely leaders, but not exactly the kinds of guys you see sandbagging on the levee late at night.

There are others program. Disney offers an entire portfolio of leadership tourism. Even Harvard offers leadership classes. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who did a fellowship at Harvard before being named Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration, offers another example of successful leadership.

I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, this leadership stuff really works!

In rural America there are big players and not so big players. It’s getting harder and harder for small communities to win new jobs away from larger towns with more leaders and a competitive spirit of economic development. That’s one reason why big towns get bigger and small towns dry up even as neighboring communities advertise our people as a part of their labor resource—or customer base.

Out here in rural America, it’s coming down to disaster management. It seems if our towns aren’t drying up they’re washing away. Time to bring on the leaders and plenty of sand bags.