Tag Archives: work

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?

What Should I Do? A Multicultural Answer

I am currently teaching a new course at Montana State University called Leadership Foundations. Thirty students ranging from 18 to over 40 are exploring together what it means to be a leader while learning some core skills.  As part of the course, each student must devote 10 non-class hours to some type of volunteer activity where he or she can practice leadership.

One of these students, while struggling to get those service learning hours accomplished, asked, “How do I know what projects are worth my time or which ones I should give up on?” She added, “Just how much energy do you put into something that looks like it is going to fail?”

Considering these questions, I recalled two others that guide my decisions on where to devote my time. When I am wrestling with what to do or not to do, I like to ask myself:

  1. If I were really brave, what would I try?
  2. Would I do this even if it might fail and others might reject me?

Reframed these questions could also be:

  1. What would I do if I knew I would succeed?
  2. What would I do anyway; no matter the final result?

The first question asks me to rise to my highest and best while the second makes sure I am doing something for the right reasons. My ego loves success and to have everyone love me; so, sometimes I can be drawn to a project if it might make me look good or bring some adoration – that’s seductive stuff! But, I am really at my best when I contribute happily regardless of what might be the ultimate outcome.

Steve Jobs, we learned in an earlier post, asks himself in the mirror each morning, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?” It seems that Jobs incorporates my two questions into one. I believe he is asking, is it bold enough, fun enough, substantive enough or right enough to be doing?

My friend David Baum taught me a similar centering technique derived from the Jewish tradition. He subscribes to an ancient proverb that says you should always keep one piece of paper in each of your front pockets. On one write, “I am part of the Divine,” and on the other scribble, “I am nothing but dust.” The wisdom comes, David reminds me, in knowing which to pull out of your pocket to guide your actions during your day.

Your appropriate next step in Buddhism is often called “right action.” In Hinduism it is referred to as “selfless service.” In both traditions we are counseled to be brave enough to get involved in life, and at the same time not to get attached to our desired results. To answer the inquiring Leadership Foundation student, these philosophies would say if the project will succeed or fail should not drive your decision. Instead the question should become, is it worth doing, would your involvement be of value to you, and to the world?Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

I am drawn to people who have clarity around right action. Today I was reading about thirteen indigenous grandmothers who have been gathering twice a year around the world to find ways to care for our future generations. In closing, I invite you to watch Grandma Bernadette as she describes why she has chosen to be part of the 13 and devote her time to their efforts.

Grandmother Bernadette’s Story from Laughing Willow on Vimeo.

fun + purpose = playing well at work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. – Aristotle

Meaning is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience, to open the most difficult of work to the dimension of joy and even gratitude. Meaning is the language of the soul. – Rachel Naomi Remen

A Montana State University Honors Instructor Lori Lawson and I took 16 college students to the Dominican Republic last May. These young adults had spent a semester considering the characteristics of dire poverty and how it might be solved. They had read about micro finance, volunteerism, and government aid and had formulated opinions on how we might alleviate suffering. Full of ideas, we undertook a two-week service learning trip visiting impoverished communities and NGOs. Although a class on global poverty, my journey became an exploration on how we can “be of use”.

The students observed a meeting where 15 community members had collectively taken out small loans with Esperanza, a DR based micro finance and literacy organization. When it came time to repay part of the loan to Esperanza’s representative, our group realized that two of the members were not present with their payment. By their contract, the remaining 13 were then responsible for the missing members’ payment. Over the next ten minutes there was heightened anxiety and conversation on who might pay extra or go find the missing borrowers. Meanwhile, the students watched. As one young woman Danielle later observed, “That was one of the most uncomfortable parts of our trip. I had the twenty bucks they needed in my pocket, which I could have easily given. I would have been like instant government aid, but would that have been a good idea?” The students wrestled with how when to give as a country, an NGO or as an individual is not necessarily an easy formula.

Later, we painted a row of shacks in another neighborhood for a couple of hours. As we began, the owners’ children all picked up paintbrushes to help. Before long, some of the grown up residents took up paint cans and joined in. Other residents grabbed brooms and machetes to sweep dirt floors and pull down overgrown brush. The street was strikingly different after just two hours as we progressed from dirty shacks to bright yellow, blue, green and rose colored homes absent of trash. Did we make great changes that day? I’m not sure, but it was fun being creative and to see the painted-covered joy on the faces of the little children.

Our students also spent an afternoon working in a small public library tutoring children who, in a country of high illiteracy, may not be able to find help at home. For some, this was their most favorite volunteer activity. I however noticed that I was more interested in fostering the young adult experience than working directly with the local children. To be of use, I was better suited to mentoring the young adults than sitting with the younger set.

We were supposed to spend a day pouring concrete floors for new homes in a batey or sugar plantation community. We were to work with Haitan immigrants who are typically discriminated against and the country’s most destitute. Everyone had packed diligently for this day bringing construction clothes and gloves for the task and were busy that morning discussing the best sun cover and insect repellent. A few administrative errors later it became clear that we would not be able to volunteer in this way. Many of us were extremely disappointed. I was hoping to learn about life in the batey and Haitan culture. Others were looking forward to problem solving and still others to the hard physical activity. One young woman complained that this day was the purpose for her journey. Although we would have to donate time and $1000 to spend a day straining our backs, the lack of this activity was a loss and I noticed how much potential joy could be wrapped up in giving.

I came out of that trip realizing that we gave best when there was a combination of both joy and sense of purpose. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien often says, “Look for what has heart and meaning.” I felt most fulfilled when I was both having fun and being useful to others.

Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown noted that after interviewing Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and polio researcher Jonas Salk that they were simply playing every day in their laboratories. Brown described Guillemin’s joy “as pure as that of a kid showing off a beautiful shell picked up at the seashore.” Meanwhile, their discoveries have saved countless lives and alleviated suffering. Financial guru Warren Buffett calls the resulting spirit of combining purpose with joy, “tap dancing to work.”

A core principle of the Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of serving others, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.” Paradoxically, we are then told in the Gita that not only should you work tirelessly, but also not care about the outcome. Hmmm, work really, really hard, but don’t worry about what it yields? Feels like an impossible riddle until I combine service with enjoying the task I am completing.