Five Leadership Lessons From the Land

Last summer we were at our farm in upstate NY and it was time to hay the fields. We don’t have haying equipment so we allow others to hay the fields and use the hay for their animals or sell it – or whatever else one does with hay. I sat by our house, watching others do the haying (they would be using the hay for their cows). I justified my space of observation by telling myself the hay was for them, not us, and since they would use the hay I didn’t need to see the work they were doing as a favor for us. That lasted about 1/3 of the way through my glass of wine when I couldn’t handle the guilt anymore. I couldn’t handle the thought of reinforcing the “city people” perception that I was certain I was deepening by sitting with my wine and watching others labor on our land.

I set my glass down, changed my shoes, grabbed some gloves and set out to help with an uncertain and physically demanding task I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to help with. I labored to keep up with the slowly moving tractor as half a dozen of us picked up hay bale after hay bale and lugged it atop the wagon. It didn’t take long for my unexercised muscles to tire. The tired muscles gave in to exhausted muscles that all but quit and would have were it not for my ego and the fear that quitting the haying effort would forever render me a real city girl. I managed to stick with it, finding ways to still help but minimizing the lifts that my muscles literally would not perform. I scurried to be one of the first atop the full wagon as we rode back to the barn. I figured if I could be on top of the bales on top of the wagon I could surely throw the bales down to the rest of the team who would then stack the bales in the barn. That worked.

Dark set in. It was the weekend of the super moon and the weather was brilliant. The sky was a perfect palette of orange and red disrupted with the allure of puffy clouds that created an artistry even the masters couldn’t replicate. It was a spectacular evening and I was pleased with myself that I had managed to find a way to stick it out. My unfinished wine beckoned.

Except we weren’t done. I mean, I thought we were because it was dark and even with the light of the moon I thought it difficult, if not impossible and maybe even dangerous, to continue. The rest of the haying team had already baled over 500 bales at another farm that day. The thought of not finishing the haying at our place hadn’t ever crossed their mind. The job wasn’t done and it would not be done until every last bale was safely under the roof in our barn. The weather threatened rain the next day (hay has to be dry when it’s baled). There was no choice, the job had to be finished. Period.

I managed the energy for one more run and then I was done. Muscles I hadn’t used since playing soccer in college were so fatigued I literally felt like a big rubbery mass of city girl wimpy-ness. Despite my pride, I excused myself from the team and headed for that wine, nearly unable to walk or lift my left arm. My husband would continue with the team and salvage whatever perception he could that we were not like all city people. He surely did that. And then, about 10:45 PM, the night was settled in, the moon invited rest, the hay was cut, and the bales were stacked. The work was done.

As a leader, the lessons inherent in this farm tale are worthy, if not a bit disguised beneath the story about summer haying. Consider that, as a leader you might:

  • Show Up. Even if we don’t HAVE to do something, often the RIGHT thing to do is to just show up and pitch in – it will matter to your team
  • Give It A Try and Get Over Yourself. Even if we don’t know HOW to do something, we have to be willing to try new things and tell our ego to take a back seat
  • Dig Deep. Often we are faced with tasks we don’t think are possible to accomplish given time and resources. While pragmatism has its place, sometimes grit is what we most need to persevere and just get ‘er done
  • Build Diversity. Building teams with diverse skills AND diverse mindsets and attitudes is vital to successfully completing a goal
  • Remember They Are Watching. Even if we don’t think they are, others are watching our moves, making judgments and perceiving our actions and in-actions. Those perceptions eventually become reality. Never forget others are watching all the time and you have control over how others perceive you by virtue of the decisions you make and the actions you take.

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John L. Waid

One characteristic in our current “leaders” that seems to be noticeably lacking is doing what you did – setting the example, sharing the troops’ hardships. There is a story told of Alexander the Great. As his army was marching across the desert towards India, water was short. One of his captains offered him a skin of water. he refused saying something on the order of “I shall not drink until my men are satisfied.” It may be apocyphal, but I hope it’s true. Our recent leaders seem to have a “one rule for me and another for everyone else” mentality which does not inspire people to want to follow them. People who supposedly have our interests at heart who routinely exempt themselves from the obligations they foist on us (Obamacare was such a great idea that Congress exempted itself from coverage, that sort of thing) make us question what their motives truly are.

Sarah Jennings Agan

Hi John – I hadn’t associated Alexander the Great with Servant Leadership models (though it’s likely obvious to others). Thanks for the example.

Scott Kearby

Anyone who is a parent can relate to the lesson “Remember They Are Watching”. But it’s not just the leaders that need to remember. When I was in the Air Nat’l Guard and we would deploy to overseas locations I would tell my troops to remember that they represent the USA and to act accordingly. I now work with construction inspectors who wear distinctive logo shirts & drive vehicles with the County Seal on the side. I continually remind them that this is like driving & walking in a spotlight … it doesn’t make them anonymous, but it calls attention to them. Most citizens will not have an interaction with the County Executive or a Cabinet member, but they will see the “troops in the field” … that is where the rubber meets the road & that is where the taxpayers meet the people & government they are paying for. So always remember … they are watching & you are not alone!

John L. Waid

Scott’s comment reminds me. Why do people have a jaundiced view of state employees? what is the one agency everyone deals with at least once in their lives? DMV. People remember how the employees who interact with the public either on purpose (at “customer service” counters) or just by being in the area treat them. We represent government wherever we go, and people look at us as such. It is hard to remember but needs to be remembered.

Kimberly Bozeman

I like that the first take-away to consider as a leader is to “show up.” It’s a simple, often overlooked quality that people very quickly take notice to. It’s something that always matters to the team and when you “show up” it builds trust.

Sarah Jennings Agan

Thanks all, for the comments. Kim, to your point about “showing up” I didn’t intentionally list that as the first lesson though you pointing that out makes me realize if one doesn’t at least show up the rest of the lessons are kind of irrelevant. Kind of begs an interesting question and that is “what is invisible leadership?”

Pg Sharpe

As I read your story and then the 5 tips, I thought about the GS14’s and 15’s at my branch and realized, they do none of these. I’ve often wondered what motivates them. I’ve realized that many in top positions don’t have the management skills nor care to try to be the best. I loved your story and your tips. Leadership is more than a position, even good leaders, lead by doing. Your team reflects you and your actions. Thank you for great insight.

Kimberly Bozeman

Great question on invisible leadership Sarah. I’d be interested to see a blog post from you with further thoughts on this. I also think Pg’s comment on “leadership is more than a position” goes into that thought quite well.