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

[imgcontainer] [img:leaders-sandbag468.jpg] [source]via Daily Mail[/source] A team of volunteers in Canton, Missouri, stacked sandbags on the levee, to hold back the flooding Mississippi River, June 2008. [/imgcontainer]

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.

[imgcontainer right] [img:leaders-off-the-train320.jpg] [source]Richard Oswald[/source] Members of Leadership Northwest Missouri leave the train to explore Jefferson City, the state capital. [/imgcontainer]

LNWMO teaches the Kouzes-Possner leadership challenge in monthly meetings. Each year those meetings are held in different Northwest Missouri towns.  Our first session in St Joseph lasted two days. We got acquainted with our fellow classmates and learned a skill that helped us remember each other’s names through word association. Everyone picked a favorite food item associated with their first name. (We sat in a circle and practiced naming each person and their food. “I’m Rick and I like rutabagas.”)

Not only could I remember my own name, I remembered all the others too. It really worked!

I did have to explain what a rutabaga is, but in the case of Kristin who liked Krispy Kremes, no explanation was needed — a symptom of the great rural/urban divide.

In St. Joseph, we were challenged by our leaders to play the game musical chairs so that no one had to drop out–even when all the chairs were gone. That took leadership, cooperation, and strong knees.

An important part of all the exercises was allowing someone new to lead, and offering support to that person however we could. We practiced all kinds of teamwork from group juggling to raising a 30-foot length of plastic pipe using only index fingers. The trick was to cooperate by keeping the pipe at the same level along the entire line. We talked about the way a flock of geese will pick a leader. When the lead goose gets tired another goose moves to the point. So we picked a lead goose that honked encouragement to the group. To our amazement, we could keep the pipe level!

Scout’s Honor, I’m not making this stuff up.

We traveled to Chillicothe and visited their modern hospital, went to Grant City to see what was going on there, and took a more physical challenge outside of Maryville at Mozingo Outdoor Education Recreation Area (MOERA).

One of the most interesting exercises was at the May meeting in Maysville, Missouri, where we did a poverty simulation through role playing. Everyone took a fictional identity and pretended to be a disadvantaged member of our society. We learned that the biggest problems poor people have are transportation, housing cost, baby sitters, and keeping food on the table while having to pay cash for everything. Some in our group were evicted regularly or had their utilities cut off even though they’d paid on time. That’s because they forgot to ask for cash receipts or lost them and couldn’t prove they’d paid. Even if people have kept records, many times they are forced to make a trip downtown after service is cut, just to prove they’re paid. That means more transportation costs and less money left for essentials.

It was hard to live that way for an hour. I can’t imagine doing it every day, but it’s even harder trying to lead people if you don’t understand their problems.

[imgcontainer] [img:leaders-graduation530.jpg] [source]Richard Oswald[/source] June 25, 2009 — Graduation night for the newest class of Leadership Northwest Missouri, held in St Joe [/imgcontainer]

Since signing up for LNWMO I learned that leadership classes are really 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.

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