Tag Archives: leaders

Sell local, buy local

Before I became a Combs twenty-five years ago, my mother-in-law was my boss. She hired me to cook at the family guest ranch in Ennis, Montana during two college summers. “Jinny” was first “Mrs. Combs” to me.

Six days a week, the kitchen staff would be up at 6 am frying bacon so we would be ready to feed the wranglers by 7; Sundays afforded us just one more hour of rest. We’d then make breakfasts to order for our guests; eggs any style, pancakes of the day, toast and, more bacon. The waitresses and two cooks then would hope to be cleaning up by 9:30 am to start prepping for lunch and dinner. It was usually then Jinny would drop by the kitchen before heading to town to pick up groceries.

During those mid-morning hours she shared how to knead bread to the perfect consistency. Did you know that women have a “built in” advantage? Jinny taught me that “You pinch the dough, now pinch your… and if both feel the same, the dough is ready to rise!”

She would often add a few of her favorite left-over recipes to the conversation, and when prodded, I learned her philosophy on leadership. After taking over a dude ranch at 29 years old with no previous experience, Jinny had learned the hard way who to hire and how to keep your employees productive. She would have us all giggling, sharing how in the early weeks of her first summer, the head cook suddenly took off with a ranch hand left behind no note, only her dentures over the stove! Jinny got a crash course on cooking and careful hiring that year.

“Attitude is everything,” was Jinny’s assessment. “I can teach anyone how to do the work, just not how to work!”

Another clear leadership value of Jinny’s was and is “buy local.” I grew up in downtown Minneapolis, so this idea was a novelty to me almost thirty years ago. Jinny was adamant — we bought everything we could in Ennis. With a population maybe 500 at the time, Ennis was our community and we needed to support it. I found this funny since I was sure toilet paper would be cheaper in Bozeman, the nearest city some 50 miles away. We had to go to Bozeman to pick up guests, why not shop there too?

Today, with internet shopping and Costco, Jinny’s modicum for running a rural business is now becoming a critical philosophy. I recently facilitated a working group session on preventing obesity in Montana. There I learned, not buying local has created “food deserts” in rural communities across the state.  As we now purchase the majority of our food from outside our communities and are unable to sustain small town grocery stores, the only ready food choices become what is sold at the local gas station. Corn dogs have replaced fresh produce as the affordable or even available choice for dinner across Montana, and in many communities around the country.

Mothers, and even mother-in-laws, deserve to know that their advice was heard and deemed correct. I think this video illustrates a magical intersection of  Jinny’s two mentioned leadership lessons:

To learn more about creating local healthy food choices check out The Center for Rural Affairs and Grow Montana as interesting examples. How might we support the health of our local communities? What are your leadership values?

Defining Leadership

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. — John Quincy Adams

I have been spending four days a week talking about leadership with university students since January. This converts to much considering what it means to lead and how to do it well. Over the past couple of weeks, the students and I have been exploring in depth the traits of leaders we admire.  Yet, completing that exercise left us all feeling like being an “outstanding leader” was well beyond our personal grasp!

Our class results contend that we like to admire our leaders. We want them to be strong, courageous, emotionally intelligent, organized and adaptable. We desire their passions to inspire us into action. We hope that they will motivate us to be our best. They should speak and write well. Yet, upon self-reflection every one of us had noticed that we don’t always measure up to our imposed standards.

My students remind me that this “name your favorite leader traits” game can discourage them from showing up as leaders. How can they consider themselves viable when they are sometimes weak, terrified, coarse, disorganized and fixed in their positions? “If I can’t make the grade, why play and fail,” some of them asked.

Meanwhile, I believe that they are all leaders and they all need to plunge into the work of facilitating change. I keep reminding them of my favorite definition of leadership from Margaret Wheatley, “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.” Since each student wants to be of assistance on their campus and in the community, they are leaders, like it or not.

To address the super hero leadership requirements we defined and being human, the students and I have been appreciating Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership. Bill has a marvelous way of acknowledging that we each bring different approaches, strengths and weaknesses to this job of “helping at this time.” He invites to show up, regardless of where we begin AND to try to rise to our best. Bill explains, “After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity. It’s being yourself; being the person you were created to be…Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.”

Using a personal example, I know that the best instructors are ones that have healthy detachment from their students’ performance. To effectively lead a classroom it helps to:

  • Teach at your best,
  • Encourage your students’ best, and
  • Not get thrown off if others don’t rise to your encouragement.

However, this week I wanted to verbally slap the student who, yet again, had not read the assignment and was nodding off in class; not very leader-like or lady-like behavior. I didn’t yell (thankfully), but I was mad that I took way too personally that student’s lack of preparation and focus.

Bill George’s words remind me that not only my wish to remain centered, but also my clear frustration, is authentically me. Acknowledging that I was not feeling very Gandhi-ish, is both kind to myself and it calls me directly to keep trying to practice healthy detachment and creative instruction.

Basically, as my son Cody likes to say, “It’s all good.” I believe it’s good that we set high standards. It’s good that I sometimes get thrown off, so that I can recognize what my standards are and how I get tripped up. Also, it’s good that even though I am far from perfect, I am still trying to help at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever find appropriate detachment anywhere in my life, but it’s good, according to George and to most spiritual traditions, that I’m just willing to try.

This week as you lead in any way, pay attention. What traits would you like to display and which ones are you using? Instead of backing off from leadership or beating up on yourself because you missing the bulls eye you’ve created, allow where you are and what you care about to guide you. I personally appreciate your “help at this time” and that we all keep practicing!

Here’s a fun leadership video following the theme of today’s post by Derek Sivers that I thought you might enjoy as you consider helping.

Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi

I just returned from an amazing week in the Dominican Republic supporting a Montana State Honors course on global poverty developed by my dear friend Lori Lawson. Along with sixteen students, we learned about micro lending, visited a batey (sugar plantation community) where poverty can be most harsh and also landed for a few fascinating days in Las Terrenas.

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Children painting homes with MSU Students

Returning to people who play well, I want to introduce you to José Bourget and Annette Snyder. José and Annette live in a growing northern DR beach town. Once a small fishing village, Las Terrenas suffers from rising prices with grand homes of wealthy French, Germans and Dominicans along with striking poverty. Creeks run beside palm- and rusted metal-constructed shacks with no plumbing or visible latrines. Children run shoeless and often in only worn underwear or simply a torn t-shirt through mud and the creek water used for bathing, washing of pots and probably too much more to be safe. Meanwhile, the local, ex-patriot and surrounding church communities are not nearly as volunteer minded as we might assume.

When José decided to return to the Dominican Republic after living in the US for twenty plus years where he worked as a professor at the University of Maryland, he and Annette wanted to help alleviate suffering. So they founded a library with their own two young children in tow.

Anacaona Library

Anacaona Library


Why a library? What of the open-air dump with garbage piled twenty feet high picked over by birds and enterprising people upstream? What of the rising numbers in prostitution, including parents renting their children to foreign sex tourists? Or perhaps the endemic issue that although public school is free, to attend a child must have shoes, a uniform and supplies, something often beyond a poor parent’s grasp?

“The number one fact that keeps a person in dire poverty is illiteracy,” José explained, “We see that children with no support at home or unable to start school until 7 or 8 are often unable to keep up and drop out of school by age 10. Illiterate, they then are unable to get but the simplest of jobs and many times this is in prostitution. Teenagers become pregnant and the cycle continues.” Annette added,  “There is so much that can be tackled, but if we can provide a place for children to come in the afternoons where there is help with homework and books to read, that is a place to start.”

Visiting them this week I was struck by a number of ways that Annette and José are playing well. Although community needs are overwhelming, they seem to know how to balance vision with sustainability. To help, they must be able to provide support over the long haul. I was impressed by how they focused on first assuring that the library and an after school program are nurtured even though they have hopes to provide support to women wanting move out of prostitution and to address some of the great sanitation issues. They model “Dream, yet make sure you will be able to deliver.” 

Also, watching from a leadership standpoint, I believe their ability to encourage volunteers has greatly contributed to their success.  Since the local community does not embrace an attitude of volunteerism, Annette and Jose rely on foreign volunteers who come to work for one month to one year. If you have time, expertise and interest, Annette and José will engage your ideas on how to bring these to the community. For example, two young women visited for three months, bringing with them a self esteem/empowerment program for 15 teenaged girls they had developed. Others teach painting or beading after the children have completed their homework. The couple’s openness to new approaches to support their mission allows their team to tackle more. 

From Annette and José I will take away the practice of balance — Keep looking where I can help while determining what I can sustain. Hold a clear vision while being open to receiving novel support from a greater community.  Nurture well not only your own children (something they are doing in spades), but also those of your community. Serve, but don’t forget to spend time enjoying your surroundings as we did at lunch in El Lemon (Annette is wearing the lime green shirt, Lori is next to her and José sits across!). 

Lunch with Jose and Annette

Lunch with Jose and Annette


Meanwhile, the Anacaona library’s Spanish children’s book section is extremely well worn and very small. They have set a goal of 10,000 books by 2010 (they now have about 5000 in a variety of languages.). To help the library meet its goal, donate or volunteer  please visit www.fundacionmahatmagandhi.com