Who Died and Made You Boss?

My thoughts on the importance of leading when you’re not technically the leader.

In our employee newsletter, Across the Fence, we’ve been talking about leadership for the last few months.

Most of our discussions have focused on personal leadership, and how to develop the skills that will allow our employees to advance their career, add value to our association, and help us meet our mission. We’ve talked about how to inspire a group, how to communicate a vision, and how to effectively lead a team of co-workers to a common goal.

But there’s another aspect of leadership that doesn’t have anything to do with the title on your business card, or the organizational chart. Today I thought I’d talk about the challenges of building consensus and leading a group in which you have no authority at all.

Leadership is an interesting concept when you’re talking about cooperatives. MidAtlantic, as part of a federated cooperative system, is mandated to be bound with the other 84 associations, 4 Farm Credit Banks and 1 Agricultural Credit Bank in the country in some ways (for instance, we all follow the same regulations set forth by FCA, and we all have the same mission). But that mandate only extends to some things. In items that are not mandated, we have a choice…we can choose to work independently, or we can choose to come together in ways that aren’t mandated by law or regulation.

The latter choice, of course, requires some leadership. It requires some followership too, but it requires that the group shows leadership, and works to come together to bring value to our members.

It’s the same way with our members. They are all independent producers but they come together and agree (by choosing a cooperative as their lender) to be bound together collectively, giving them access to and control of their source of credit.

In both instances, there is a tension that exists between serving the individual need (whether that individual is a producer, an association, or even a funding bank) and the needs of the greater system (whether that system is a trade association, a lending ACA, a bank, or the whole she-bang of the national, federated Farm Credit System).

It’s because of that tension that leadership is needed. Within that framework, there is an opportunity to be something more than just the sum of the individuals. But it takes leadership—individual and group leadership—to make that happen.

Here’s a real life example. In the past several days, I’ve chaired meetings of two System committees. Both of these committees are creatures of collaboration. They are models for the “come, let us reason together” approach. They have no chartered authority to impose direction or enforce action on anybody or any entity in the System.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Or at the very least, a big waste of time, right?

On the contrary, both of those committees can boast big accomplishments. One (the Reputation Management Committee) has overseen the establishment of a solid System communications platform. The other (the Regulations/Legislative/Public Relations Committee of the Presidents’ Planning Committee) is the starting point for developing the System’s Farm Bill agenda.

I’m not going to say that working on these committees is easy. “Come, let us reason together” sounds good in theory, but it’s not always sunshine and apple pie. The process involves managing the tensions that can exist between the individual interests and the broader, strategic interests of the System. It also involves managing egos. Managing those egos, and smoothing out disagreements, is critical because no one in the membership is required to participate. No one is required to follow the committee’s recommendation. At any point, any member of the committee can pick up their toys and go home.

That adds an interesting dimension to the tension, let me tell you.

Sometimes I wonder if this fight between the individual and the group is more prevalent in agriculture than it is in other groups. Farmers are, in some ways, lone rangers managing a business. And they like it that way. They don’t like to be told what to do. They don’t band together often, and when they do try to come together, it seems like they only want to come together in small groups (for instance, the guys and gals who milk cows can come together…but can you see them joining forces with women who raise horses? Or with the couple that raises herbs for local restaurants? Or with the guy who just bottled his first batch of wine?)

In many instances in ag, I would say that the individual wants wins over the group’s needs too many times.

Unfortunately, I think that ag producers and growers are ultimately losers if they try to go it alone, just like MidAtlantic would be on the short end of the stick if we didn’t try to collaborate with our peers and build something better together. It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about a health care plan, or a new computer system, or consistent land usage laws, or the upcoming Farm Bill. If each one of us is yelling something different, you can’t make out any of the messages. And that means no one wins.

That’s why I think it’s important for people to stand up and agree to follow the group. Create collaboration, find some common ground, and then go home and try to recruit more people to your way of thinking. It’s not fun, battling the tension. It’s not easy, recruiting people to see your point of view (especially since you’ve seen the hours and hours of committee work that got you to that point, whereas the other people you talk to haven’t). But I think that the rewards—the outcomes—are completely worth the pain.

If one of your personal and professional goals is to become a leader, challenge yourself to do this: the next time that you’re on a committee, or meeting with your department, or even having dinner with your family, put aside your ego and don’t think about what’s best for you (this is hard, let me tell you). Think about what’s best for the group, and be an advocate for that result. Prepare to compromise, and explain your position many many times, and prepare to have some people disagree with you completely. You may even have to deal with someone packing up their toys and leaving. Don’t forget—you’re not in charge, and your job is to convince people, not just order them around.

I’ve been on enough committees in the Farm Credit System to know that building consensus isn’t easy. But once you’ve done it, and you’ve seen the whole group (or system) prosper, you’ll know that it was worth it. Even if you had to put your ego aside.

And that’s when you’ll find your true leadership potential.

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