Because I have spent my entire career in professional services, it is not often that clients or connections associate me with agriculture or farming. However, it is someone from this industry, a humble farmer named Tom, who has had the greatest impact on my career. Perhaps the surprising thing is that he did so not through his words, but through his actions. Tom was the type of man who would not toot his own horn and did not like the spotlight (so this article would not have been his thing), but many people would say his quiet leadership spoke volumes through impact. What follows are several of the leadership lessons he taught me and many others with whom he interacted.
- Have a Mission Orientation – Tom was always guided by a strong foundation of values and principles, but also a passion for his work in growing the family farm. However, he was clear that while the growth of the farm was important to support the family, it was more important for the purpose it served – the work (e.g., the planting, tending to livestock, and harvesting) mattered because it provided for others.
- Be a Lifelong Learner – Regardless of age, Tom was always learning. When traveling with his family or his wife, it was not uncommon to have a stop at a significant farm operation, orchard, or agriculture-related manufacturer or plant for some type of tour or exploration. He was naturally intellectually curious and could often be found engaging in conversation about how something worked, was produced, or built – all with an eye to continuously improve.
- Preparation is Essential to Success – Although the farm “busy season” runs from the April planting through the fall harvest, I don’t recall many “down” days for Tom. It was clear that there was always work to be done, and much of it centered on rigorous preparation. Whether it was studying the yields, planning crop rotations, getting the drainage right, or doing preventative and other maintenance on the trucks, tractors, and combines, he was always preparing for the next season or task with great diligence.
- In Crisis, Run Into the Fire – Many years ago, an arsonist set fire to Tom’s lifelong church that had been built in the early 1900s. While he was not a firefighter, when he found out the building was burning, he rushed to the site to help. Knowing the historical significance to the community, he ran into the burning sanctuary and saved several items from the church’s altar. Tom would be the first to say that running into the fire is not recommended, but this example stands out for me because it symbolized his belief in the importance of “showing up” – being present in times of need and doing what needs to be done, regardless of role, title, or any thought of “what’s in it for me”.
- Yelling is Not Required – Soft-spoken and quiet. These are two words that many used to describe Tom and his leadership. He just didn’t yell or raise his voice. Not at his kids, not at his co-workers, and not at others who might have “deserved” it. It wasn’t in his nature, and he didn’t need to be loud to have an impact or achieve his purpose. In some ways, this quiet nature of his leadership spoke loudly about his belief in how others should be respected and treated, even in times of disagreement or potential conflict.
- Share the Fruits of Your Labor – It is natural when you are a farmer to have “fruits” that you can share, and Tom definitely shared those, and more. It wasn’t just about sharing tangible things for him. If he could make a difference through his time, knowledge, or talents, he shared those. He approached life with an abundance mentality, and even in lean years, focused on what he could share or give, not on what he didn’t have or needed to keep. And he encouraged others to do the same.
- Investing in the Future is Not About Money – When you talk about investing for the future, most people would immediately think about money, and from a practical perspective, Tom believed that was important. However, more important was investing in teaching and knowledge-sharing. Whether it was his nephews who would take over the family business, local 4-H’ers learning about livestock, groups who wanted to learn about farming or machinery, or his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Tom took pride in developing others and “paying it forward”.
- Move Onward – Looking to or dwelling on the past was not something that Tom did, especially when it came to something going wrong or problem-solving. His approach did not include wasting time with blame or what went wrong, rather he focused forward and encouraged anyone involved to do the same. Fixing the issue or taking some type of positive action as a result was the most appropriate response to move onward.
- Look for the Similarities, not the Differences – In our world today, there seems to be a great focus on how different we are from one another and it causes division and discord. One of the greatest character traits and lessons that Tom shared with his family and others was that people are more similar than they are different. He promoted acceptance, acknowledging and valuing people for who they are.
Although these lessons were gleaned from a life devoted to agriculture, they can apply to all of us as leaders regardless of the industry in which we serve. Tom would never profess that his way was the right way or that others should do what he did. Rather, the lessons are simply a reflection of how he chose to show up every day, and as leaders, we all need to contemplate that. His spoke to an expectation for performance, the pursuit of excellence, and a core belief in the potential within each person and for making a positive impact. As leaders, part of self-awareness and development is constantly challenging ourselves to think about how we show up. What example are we setting and what would others see?
I was fortunate to not just learn these lessons; I “lived” them and countless more. You see, this successful humble farmer, Tom, was my Dad, and I was lucky enough to be loved and mentored by him for 53 years. He inspired me to become a business owner, to do work I love, and to try to make a difference, no matter the role. He lost his battle with COVID-19 a few weeks ago, but his legacy and lessons live on.
As we close out 2020 and move onward into 2021, may we all reflect on our own leadership and the lessons we are leaving as we go.