By Richard Neely Morrison, Maricopa County Farmer, Attorney and Minister: Way back at the beginning of my career a mentor told me, “People who know people get things done.”

But how do you get to know people? Sometimes, it’s a matter of being a good leader in the groups to which you belong. Sometimes it’s a matter of being a good follower. Of course you can get to know people as a follower. Furthermore, you can generally be a good follower without assuming as much risk as the leader must assume. And you might learn nearly as much as a follower as you do as a leader without having to invest the additional time leadership requires. But you are likely to have more impact if you assume the functions of a leader. And impact is what you want. Engagement for its own sake is either pretty hollow or pretty self-centered. Engagement for impact can change lives—your life, the life ahead for your family members, and the lives of others who share your commitment to agriculture.

Farm Bureau member Richard Morrison counsels young farmers and ranchers to collaborate more as leaders and also be selective of the organizations you join. 

But you need your leadership to be both effective and timely. Lately I have been observing that I have known lots of people whose attempts at leadership lacked the desired impact either because they acted timely but were not effective or they were effective leaders but did not act timely. Think about that. It’s fairly rare to find an example of someone being effective at precisely the right time when a challenge presents itself. Usually that is because people in leadership, people who have all the right people skills, nevertheless fail to act at the right time. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know what to do exactly, and sometimes it’s because it takes more courage than they can muster to do what has to be done.

Leadership Today Requires More Collaboration

When you don’t know what to do, exactly, you are confronted with the realization that leadership today requires more collaboration than ever before. The world faces problems that are more and more complex than ever before, or at least the solutions involve more complexity, if only because of the increase in population and the increase in the number of organizations responding to industry challenges; however, it cannot be denied that some of the complexity is associated with highly technical advancements in recent years. A lot of us don’t know how to use the latest technology or cannot afford to do so. Only collaboration can overcome complexity. Industry has always used consultants, lawyers, engineers, public relations people, and others whose expertise is needed, but today, especially in the policy arena, we need to address industry challenges in a manner that involves more collaboration with other industry groups, and we need to reduce the competitive SHOUT among agriculture groups seeking more clout for themselves.

Regarding our young farmers and ranchers, you all are young enough to be able to implement the insights that come out of a deep personal reflection on the commitments you will make. And maybe you will want to reflect a little bit on the journey you have already completed. Maybe your previous experience with leadership has taught you some things.

My Leadership Journey Forged in Competitive Environments

I had occasion to think about my own leadership journey a few years ago and here is a snapshot of what I realized. You may recognize elements of your own story in what I am about to share.

As a young boy I had the benefit of growing up in a farmer’s household. My father personally believed and modeled the idea that no one had the right to be the boss of the farm unless he or she could do each of the jobs on that farm as well as the person employed to do the job. Today we may see how utterly impossible that standard would be for the owner or manager of a big business with hundreds of employees doing all kinds of technical and non-technical work. But Dad’s idea had the elements of personal challenge and the germ of the idea that maybe in some cases we don’t really deserve to be leaders unless we have earned the privilege.

My first personal encounter with leadership off the farm was in the conscious realization that I might actually be chosen by a group for some leadership role. This was in the Boy Scouts. It was an exciting thought, because I was already sufficiently acculturated to recognize that leadership is often associated with influence and sometimes with power—both very, very tempting attributes of what people consider to be success. But at least the Boy Scouts helped temper those early impressions with the insistence that leaders help others through service. And, indeed, we need that attitude at every age and stage of life.

In high school, I joined the FFA and began to see student leadership in action, and I saw a great deal of enthusiasm for the mission of the FFA. It was natural for me to conclude, then, that leadership was mostly about showing enthusiasm for a common vision and devoting energy in working toward that vision—the common vision obviously involving others—a group. I thought of leadership as representative enthusiasm, and I got pretty good at it:  I became State President and National Vice-President of the FFA. In those days I think I assumed that enthusiasm would be infectious, with the result that others could be inspired to join in the effort of the group. Now, I still believe there’s a role for enthusiasm, but I’ve become less interested in leaders who sound like cheerleaders, and more interested in leaders who think about what’s important to those they lead.

It’s also worth mentioning that, like you, I suspect, I was developing my first impressions of leadership in largely competitive environments where students run for student council, play sports, and compete in FFA judging contests. In that environment, with each passing year competition dominated one’s sense of how things are in the world, and this started at a very early age. You remember, I’m sure. Spelling bees, track meets, and other tests and trials were always on the near horizon. And there’s a role for competition: it can be indispensable as a means of helping us achieve our maximum potential, especially when competition is about learning. However, it’s woefully inadequate as the motivator for leadership because it makes little room for the spirit of cooperation and compromise, let alone anything remotely resembling compassion and service.

When I joined the armed forces my impressions of leadership were even more confounded. The war in Vietnam was raging, and after college I signed up to become a Navy pilot. But first there was a long rigorous boot camp under Marine Drill Instructors. I learned very quickly how totally effective fear can be in motivating people to do almost anything—superhuman things, but also crazy things and things that are simply wrong—immoral—such as killing without reason or provocation. Sometimes just for sport. I once met a Lt. Commander who used to brag about what he did when his targets in North Vietnam were blocked by weather. He said he would fly south down the coast line looking for what we called targets of opportunity, and he particularly enjoyed strafing elephants he would see in the jungle or on the beach. I was so offended by this man that when I passed him directly on the sidewalk I refused to salute him, which was required of me because I was a junior officer and certainly junior to him. It generated a bad report on my record at the end of that assignment, which still smarts after all these years, but if I had it do over again, I’d do the same, and much more.  But back then, I was afraid: he outranked me, he outshone me,  and where he lead I was meant to follow, not only because it was required, but because it was how I had been conditioned. Military training had worked perfectly. I was not afraid to die, but I was afraid of the consequences of insubordinate behavior. I’m happy to say his was not the only example of military leadership I witnessed, and there were several that I did respect very much, but in terms of a paradigm, the example of fear-based and ego-based leadership is one that’s stuck with me.  

So we move ahead in my story to the years in which I was practicing law full time. Over the course of my career I had the opportunity to do this in three of the finest firms in Phoenix. But may I tell you the scandal of leadership in those firms?  Those firms were pretty much organized around the notion that everyone had a specific and unchanging role in the firm, especially at the level of support staff and those roles were assigned according to the senior partners’ perception of how someone could be valuable to them. Never mind that they may have known only one thing about each person, never mind that whatever it is they thought they knew might be wrong, and never mind that each person might have ideas and aspirations for himself or herself. In all the years I have practiced law, I have never seen a member of the management of a law firm approach any non-lawyer (librarian, accountant, IT specialist, receptionist, or even paralegal) and say, “What are you goals and how can we help you achieve them.”  It never happened, and in my mind, that is a scandal.

But everywhere you look, you see people relating to each other on the basis of very little information. You may know one thing about someone and that defines your relationship with her or him. But there is so much more to relationship, to community building, to being open to the very idea of cooperation, mutuality, common ground, common interest. Knowing one thing about someone is almost the same thing as not knowing the person.

As unimaginative as their management paradigm was, though, the law firms’ leadership style was effective. I associate this style with the description “quiet operator.”  In our firms we never had speeches. We seldom had firm-wide meetings, seldom voted. Initiatives for marketing, expansion, creation of branch offices and the like were nearly always generated in quiet conversations among two or three people, who would go talk to two or three more. Consensus building was created in baby steps. It worked well, even in firms numbering 125 partners, and the one who mastered it usually ended up being the firm’s managing partner.

Get to Know Arizona Agriculture’s Leadership Giants

So, you can see that I have observed several types of leadership over the years. The agricultural industry has its own leadership giants and I urge you to get to know them and ask very pointed questions about the lessons they have learned regarding leadership. Sometimes mastering process trumps subject matter expertise. Sometimes it’s the other way around. In fact, sometimes experts on water, chemical use, environmental policy, or trade relationships will rise to the top even though they don’t know many people in the organization. On the other hand, sometimes those who get elected are those who simply have time to serve. And there will be differences even among agriculture groups. What works best in Farm Bureau may not be the most effective in the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, for example, but there are bound to be similarities. You will notice all of these things for yourself.

In the end, your self-analysis will lead to your own conclusions about what motivates you and about what sort of leadership style suits you best. I will acknowledge that the type of leadership you demonstrate will necessarily differ depending upon the immediate context, and that is where your own instincts will be important.

I do hope that your commitment to engagement will grow into leadership. Of course, in a very real way, it already has, but there is always more you can do, and because you can’t do everything, it’s important to think strategically about how to employ the resources at your disposal—including the resources Farm Bureau makes available through its own staffing. Legislatively, of course, Farm Bureau staff engages on our behalf, and this function explains one of the principle reasons Farm Bureau even exists. But isn’t it obvious that your membership in Farm Bureau is a concrete example of the kind of collaborative leadership I have described. In turn, Farm Bureau has to seek ways to collaborate with other agricultural groups. It collaborates whenever it can. That is all appropriate and necessary.

But let’s end by bringing it all back to our young farmers and ranchers, to each of you, as you think about what life is like inside your skin where you live. If you are contemplating a commitment to leadership in your community or in Farm Bureau specifically, here are some assumptions about what it takes to be a good leader that will have to be considered, and only you can do this for yourself:

  • First, that there is a right and a wrong way, or perhaps a more effective and less effective way, to be a leader.
  • Second, that being a leader necessitates interacting with other people, and that remaining in leadership means that both you and the people you’re leading are pleased with your efforts.
  • Third, that there is a cause or mission towards which it’s worth the effort to lead others and to sustain that effort because it may be harder to achieve the goal than you anticipate.

These three points deserve more commentary; possibly future articles.

There is one more caveat I would share. I have made a mistake in my life in trying to be involved in too many organizations simultaneously. You will dilute your effectiveness in each of the organizations if you get spread too thin. So engagement is important, but being overly committed is unwise.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally a presentation given to Arizona Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers during their annual summer retreat this past June.

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