As I See It: On Leadership
June 7, 2010 Victor Rozek
The wind yawns, and a long, mournful sigh sails through ancient trees. Slanting rays of sunlight ignite the pink tops of rhododendrons, and illuminate patches of emerald moss underfoot. The sound of water tumbling over stone hums in the distance. Here the lucky and patient may spot elk and deer, owls and hawks, black bear and steelhead.
But for all its natural splendor, this is a place of paradox: beautiful but scarred, healthy yet still healing. Fifteen years ago (a short time in the life of a forest), it was pocked with clearcuts and veined with logging roads; subject to a variety of competing agendas and the designs of powerful special interests. This is the Willamette National Forest, 1.7 million federally owned acres of Oregon’s finest real estate. It stretches 160 miles through the heart of the state, an evergreen lifeline providing a vast array of natural services, plus recreation and timber. In the past, it served as ground zero for Northwest logging protests, and is perhaps best known as home for the poster child of public land disputes: Strix occidentalis, the Spotted Owl.
Managing public lands fractured by private agendas is a daunting task requiring unique leadership skills. Stakeholders are numerous and vocal. They include: loggers and timber companies, horsemen, hikers, hunters, motorized recreation advocates, fishermen, water resource managers, power utilities, bio-fuel startups, environmentalists, river rafting outfitters, mushroom pickers, Native American tribes, local, state, and county governments, plus a variety of sister agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management. And if that’s not enough, new stakeholders regularly emerge each with unique needs and expectations. Changing temperatures and weather patterns, for example, are putting a strain on water resources coveted by growing urban populations and essential to fish migrations. Then there are issues that spill-over into the forest: how to accommodate a growing homeless population residing on public lands.
Managing the Willamette all but guarantees that some subset of stakeholders will not get what they want. To be the Supervisor of the Willamette National Forest is to become an immediate lightning rod for the discontent of the people you are attempting to serve. By comparison, managing an IT department whose constituents share basic values and require essentially the same services, is a domesticated task. Managing a National Forest is going feral.
Which is why I was fascinated by the leadership qualities required to tame the beast. Because if they work in this context, they can be applied anywhere. So when a friend of mine transferred from Vermont to assume responsibility for the Willamette, I seized the opportunity to interview her.
If I had to use a single word to describe Meg Mitchell, it would be “understated,” which offers the first clue to her management style: her presence is non-threatening. To be clear, this is an accomplished woman, although she does her best to keep that a secret. Just in her mid-40s, she is the first woman to manage the complex and volatile Willamette. She is also a talented artist, a landscape architect, and a forester, although it only took me about 10 years to find that out. And that’s clue number two: Her ego doesn’t require constant care and feeding. She does not dominate conversations, but appears to have that rare ability to be externally focused and introspective–not just hearing information, but ingesting it and feeling its impact.
Mitchell’s office is small and unpretentious, located in a recently completed National Guard complex. For those who believe the federal government is wasteful, rest assured it’s not wasting money on forest supervisor accommodations.
A visitor will spy neither whip nor taser, or any other persuasive management tool, although a hard hat is in evidence. Another clue: Her weapons are defensive. And I say that only partially in jest. I’ve been in the offices of many executives who almost universally display evidence of their prowess and achievement: everything from trophies and awards, to wall-mounted game fish and pictures of themselves shaking hands with famous people. Mitchell’s office, like its occupant, is unpretentious.
What can be found there is an artistic rendering of her leadership model. She drew it herself and it consists of five panels each with an animal depicting the qualities of leadership to which Mitchell aspires. Left to right they include Jaguar, which stands for intention and integrity; Otter, representing play, curiosity, and humor; Bear, radiating compassion and respect; Raven, the symbol for vision and strategy; and Heron, a model of reflection and grace. There is also a small Bee that looks as if it just landed on the canvas, which represents service and synergy.
These are the values, Mitchell explains, by which she strives to live. She considers adherence to them a personal contract. Her strategy is not to impose organizational values but to model them so others may come to see their worth and adopt them voluntarily. Rather than changing the organization, she is committed to continuously improving herself, thereby refining her ability to influence her staff.
“But if I’m an employee,” I ask her, “how does any of this benefit me?” She answers without pausing to equivocate. “This is what you can hold me accountable for. If I’m not living these values, I want to know it.” I glance back at the picture. Beneath the totemic animals, Mitchell has carefully penned some 30 of her favorite quotes–an anthology of her beliefs. A relevant quote by Albert Schweitzer catches my eye. “Example isn’t the main thing influencing others, it’s the only thing.”
The focus on self-improvement extends to employee development. Mitchell’s goal is to provide every employee with both a professional and a personal development plan. Servant leadership, as she envisions it, values the entire employee; both the head and the heart. I see another quote by Margaret Meade: “We study how to remake the world, but not ourselves. The result is science without humanity.”
I read the quote aloud and Mitchell says, “Yes, the Forest Service does good science, but it’s not enough. Science without human considerations is just data.” When people have strong emotional responses, research results–however accurate–are insufficient. Stakeholders do not live by data alone, and neither, Mitchell believes, should the Forest Service. Social values change, and creating consensus is a continuous, ever-shifting process. Mitchell thinks that the arts and humanities have much to offer in that regard. “You can’t love the forest and hate the people, or champion the people at the expense of the natural world that sustains them.” In a visceral way that bypasses the brain, the arts and humanities speak to common interests otherwise submerged by conflicting currents.
“The problem,” Mitchell says, “is that we have a land ethic, but not a consumption ethic.” People want their forest and they want to eat it, too. Like an IT organization charged with providing universal update capability and absolute data integrity; the challenge for Mitchell’s organization is bridging the contradiction of self-canceling desires.
The key, Mitchell believes, is building consensus, and consensus demands collaboration. “Collaboration first requires extensive conversations about what people are actually willing to collaborate on,” a process she’s undertaking with numerous stakeholders who, if not committed to consensus, will simply obstruct the process going forward.
Beyond a land ethic and a consumption ethic, she speaks about developing a third ethic: one that defines how we converse with each other. And another quote catches my eye, this one a Buddhist saying which succinctly describes the scope of her challenge: “The world is divided between people who think they are right.” But if zealotry is the ailment, then this observation by Ken Blanchard identifies Mitchell’s prescription for a cure: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
It also summarizes Meg Mitchell’s leadership style. Eclectic, collaborative, consensus driven, grounded in science, inspired by the wisdom of others, and informed by the arts and humanities. But I think it only fair to summarize Mitchell’s ultimate aspiration using words that she has chosen. Among the quotes in her leadership montage is this gem: “My goal in life is to be as good a person as my dog already thinks I am.”
IT managers, with or without dogs, take notice.