This past November, at the 101st Annual Meeting of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, we had the opportunity to hear from Paul Schwenesen about his time spent in Ukraine, helping its citizens during the ongoing Russian invasion. His collection of stories and a firsthand account of the people and the conditions in the war-torn country brought to my mind something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, perspective. 

With all our connectivity today, one would think that advocacy would be easier, but in some ways, it has become much harder. At times I find myself in meetings wondering, why are we having so much trouble bridging the divide here? I think it might have to do with building relationships in the way that we seek perspective. If you exist in an echo chamber – you see no need to do this. This doesn’t mean we must agree before being agreed with, it’s really about communication and the art of persuasion or negotiation. After all, most relationships depend on a continuous cycle of taking, seeking and coordinating perspectives

What is Perspective?

Every day the perspective which we have as individuals, as community leaders, and as business owners, impacts our lives and those around us. We use perspective as either a tool for persuasion or to give context to our own reality.  It guides our reasoning for decision-making and reaching conclusions. Peter Chao of the Eagles Leadership Institute describes perspective as this, “Perspective provides the context to frame an event or decision so that meaningful understanding can emerge to inform decisions or responses. Perspective shapes our assumptions and presuppositions that guide our reasoning.”  

Since perspective is neither right nor wrong, it just is what it is – it requires that we be generous in our interpretations of others’ perspectives to make progress on complicated issues. 

It’s important to note that even though both our perspectives and our principles reflect and guide our choices, they are not the same. Principles are not generally malleable or changing to any significant extent, but perspective may very well change over time depending on our environment – which is generally always changing in some way or another. Our principles or values heavily weigh our perspectives, but they don’t create rigidity because perspective is also influenced by other factors, such as physical and emotional environment, relationships, experiences, upbringing, culture, or just your current state of mind. Folks often consider principles and perspectives to be mutually exclusive to justify decision-making. In other words, I cannot waiver on my principles, and therefore I cannot change my perspective. This is becoming more and more commonplace in politics today and making it more and more difficult to navigate complicated issues.

Seeking and sharing perspectives is critical in relationship development. As spouses, parents, business owners, and executives, and as leaders in our communities and leaders in the Farm Bureau.

The Right Questions to Get to Perspective in Leadership

Many of you either own a business or provide a leadership role within a business. It’s crucial in those environments to be self-aware of the lens through which you see the world and be aware of the lens through which those around you see that same world. Peter Chao suggests asking yourself what he calls the Being Lens questions: “How do I relate to others?”, “What is my role/impact in this situation?” and “Why am I doing this?”  And then there are the Vision Lens questions:  Have you used insight to look beyond the obvious, used foresight to imagine what could be, used hindsight to realize that all aspects of reality are part of a broader context that has developed over time (you are not the only influencer), and then brought all this together to motivate achieving what others might not consider doable. These are the key elements considered by Chao to be important in developing a perspective in leadership.

I attribute Farm Bureau’s leadership in advocating for agriculture to our ability to bring multiple perspectives together and to ask these questions. We begin this process at the county level with policy development and it extends to the state and national levels. It’s important that we bring together different points of view from around the state and from differing sectors to create our positions on everything from property rights and water accessibility to taxation, grazing rights, and agriculture safety net programs. Not only do we bring these perspectives to lawmakers in Phoenix and Washington D.C., but to local town halls, the airwaves, social media channels and the classroom.  To share a story is to share a perspective. Think about the multiple perspectives around such controversial issues as immigration. Just within the membership of this organization, a rancher on the border will have a different perspective than a farmer in central Arizona and a rancher in northern Arizona will have a different perspective than a farmer in Yuma. All those perspectives differ from a suburban mom in Mesa, who might differ from a retiree in Sun City or a teacher in the heart of Phoenix.  I do believe that someday soon we will be able to mesh all these perspectives because we have done it in Farm Bureau already. But it requires that our leaders and lawmakers who represent a broad spectrum of constituents ask those same questions of perspective and integrates them into several actions which address each concern on the way to a broad-based solution.

I recently traveled to Pennsylvania for the traveling board meeting of the American Farm Bureau, and on the second day, we toured some of the state’s agriculture. One of our stops was at a typical dairy in the Northeast. Seeing how different these dairies are from those we are more familiar with in the West and in our own state, helped me to understand how and why their dairy policy differs from ours. Experiencing this doesn’t change what I am advocating for from our policy book, but it will change how I advocate for those policies now that I have a better understanding of the broader picture. 

There are certainly less complicated issues when all you need is a simple majority of the same perspective, like for tax relief. Or when different perspectives lead you to the same reality, like the need for augmented water supplies in the state of Arizona and what those needs look like across a diverse state. 

Then there are times we must ask ourselves where the majority perspective is coming from and the influence of that perspective. We then pivot our efforts to achieve our goals. This is reflected in our efforts to get fair rancher compensation for wolf depredation and avoidance in Northern and Eastern Arizona. We oppose the presence of the wolf, but we must recognize the influence of the pro-wolf advocates and where we can more efficiently expend our efforts on compensation rather than elimination.

Considering perspective also becomes important in our ag education efforts. According to the latest census numbers, Spanish is spoken at home in about 20% of homes, with up to 9% of Arizonans speaking only Spanish. If we are to consider the perspective of a significant percentage of consumers in Arizona, and teachers with limited resources working in low-income communities, then it would be sensible for us to provide some of our educational materials in Spanish. We have done this with our first reader books. We could ignore this perspective, but we would only be hurting our own efforts of informing the public with accurate ag information. 

Sense of Place

Seeking perspective in leadership helps us work with others to find solutions, but it also helps us to navigate our daily lives.   

Paul’s stories of Ukraine reflected his point of view on what is happening across a continent and an ocean from where we are today, based on his direct experiences. His initial decision to even engage was largely based on the perspective that he has developed over his lifetime. Hearing his accounts might impact a broader stance on the Russian/Ukrainian Conflict or your own personal outlook and sense of place. 

I recently read the book, “The Happiest Man on Earth”, the autobiography of the Auschwitz survivor Eddie Jaku. In it, he lays out chapter by chapter his philosophies about education, survival, friendship, health, morality, sorrow, and hope. His final conclusions about a well-lived life are insightful and from the viewpoint of a man narrowly escaping death many times over. 

He speaks to the importance of focusing on the most basic tenants of life that really matter. He laments about the fact that he waited too long to tell his story about hate and happiness because of the painful memories and the emotional burden he felt it would have on his family. From 1938 to 1945 he survived from one concentration camp to the next, one labor factory to the next, and two death marches. He saw all but his sister and one long-time friend die in the camps. When he was finally saved by an American tank passing by as he crawled across the ground from his last escape – he was at 62 pounds, sick with cholera, typhoid, malnourishment, and the lasting impacts of multiple head traumas. The doctors gave him a 65% chance of death and he chose to focus on the 35% chance of life, because “hope costs you nothing.”  From his life perspective, he says, “I have lived for a century, and I know what it is to stare evil in the face. I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, and the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life and the lives of all my people. But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth. Through all of my years, I have learned this:  life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. I will tell you my story. It is a sad one in parts, with great darkness and great sorrow. But it is a happy story in the end because happiness is something we can choose. It is up to you.”

What a shame it is to never seek out others’ perspectives. Seeking and sharing perspectives can be a stabilizing force within our families, our work, and our advocacy. 

Thank you for the opportunity to continue to serve as the president of this great organization. And the opportunity to work with our great staff to keep this organization at the forefront of agriculture policy, communication, and education!