While flipping through pages of old familiar scrapbooks I become immersed in images that tell a story, and preserve moments that cannot otherwise be told. One particular theme that is evident in most images is focus. The focus originates in the ongoing suffrage my family has endured. Whether the suffrage was internal, for example, my father becoming bitter at a young age towards his father for buying a farm out of his price range and compensating for his mistake by placing the farm on his lone son’s line of credit. Externally, it was also an on-going battle, between the machinery and mortgage bills, hoping month-to-month we would have enough money to eat. Further when the 80’s arrived the Ag. Crisis deepened my fathers’ hole surrounded in debt. One concept is certain amongst chaos— possessing enduring focus to work hard and see goals through will reap large rewards.
Poverty in its most humbling sense is an area of life both sides of my family historically had to endure. My Father’s family migrated from a coastal community in Denmark in the early 1900’s. Luckily, the Andersen’s from Denmark had close friends who migrated to the Midwest nearly a decade before they made the move. Although my father’s family had a support system early on, conditions remained unrelentingly challenging. The Great Depression arrived decades after settling on a small farm in rural southeast Iowa. My great, great grandfather and his brothers fled from their parent’s home because their parents could no longer provide. Harsh times lead to being stripped of their livelihoods and everything they had ever known. My Father tells stories of his grandfather and great uncles eating potatoes and scavenging all sources of energy from their makeshift shack thirty miles from where they grew up. Tired and scared my ancestors focused on survival during the years of the Great Depression. Focus served as a coping mechanism to bridge the gap between fear and faith.
Similarly my mother’s side had to endure marginalization. My great, great grandfather heritage has been identified as Italian and Jewish. The religion portion was largely concealed as WWII neared. In fear of being forcibly put into a concentration camp my great, great grandfather changed his families last name to a German name: Schuler. Shortly after changing names, my mother’s ancestors migrated to the US. Having worked the land for several years in their native country, the Schuler’s decided to buy their own farm in Iowa. My family’s origins are rural in demographics and personal in nature. Seldom, were members of my family not working, for their survival depended on it. I’m proud of my lineage everyday I’m reminded of the many sacrifices, blood sweat and tears that have contributed to who I am today. I have an ethical obligation to learn from their perseverance and apply their work ethic to my own choices in life.
I am the third son of four boys, a Midwest transplant, and today a grateful and blessed individual. There are multiple factors that have influenced my perceptions of leadership. Two important and influential people in my life as cliché as it may sound are my parents. Both faced unending adversity growing up in insulated rural areas. Before my father made the choice to finish his undergraduate education after taking sixteen years off to farm, my parents and two elder brothers struggled to make ends meet on their 360-acre farm. Both my mother and father exemplify what I envision when I consider the true essence of successful leadership. Both my parents made considerable sacrifices. My father took the initiative and risk to go back to school in hopes of providing a better future for his children, and newfound freedom for his wife. Both of my parents had to break their back 16-hours a day farming in hopes of avoiding further debt at the end of the month. The realities of the conditions on the farm were: unforgiving, and difficult especially when your boss is your Father. Despite criticism from family and friends of my parents typically stating they were mad for leaving the farm and would never make it—my parents took the risk and ran. My parents moved to Ames, Iowa where my dad re-enrolled at Iowa State and my mom worked the night shift at a local diner. My parents were ambitious and ecstatic to sublimate their frustrations with their past lives into work and college. I consider the monumental risk my parents took to be a critical incident in my life that continually transforms my perceptions and attitudes in relation to leadership. Meaning in order to create informed successful leadership one must intelligently and collaboratively take on risks in the best interest of the group/company/or campaign. In the context of my parents decisions they decided to follow their aspirations and heart in working towards a new life in hopes of creating something new for their children, and full of opportunity. On the farm opportunities were confined to survival. My Parent’s actions and vision to create a new life for their sons through attaining an education speaks volumes of admirable leadership, specifically their enduring faith, hard-working attitude, and grateful outlook. Their philosophy in believing in themselves despite adversity continues to be a model I strive to live by.
A critical incident I reflect on regularly is moving cross-country from Iowa to Oregon by mini-van. Roughly five years after my father received his first job out of college he became fed up with the small-town politics and needed a change of scenery. Our extended family continued to have disagreements, most of the time unwarranted and childish. Both parents made a decision after talking to the guys, if given the job, we would move cross-country to Oregon. Moving cross-country is probably something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was interesting, being young and having no idea where or what Oregon had to offer for a six-year old boy. We sold most of our belongings hosting our own moving-away sale. The Iowa humidity entrenched and guided our mini-van outside of the boundaries of the mid-west. Once we arrived in Oregon our family continually had to adapt to a different way of life in Oregon. We had previously gone to private schools in Iowa, and now the brother’s had to adapt to the reality of public schools. Although reflecting back on the shift in schools I’m glad I went to a public school. I was forced to give up my preconceived notions and immerse myself and befriend others who spoke different languages and lived different home lives. Moving cross-country continually taught me valuable lessons which I continue to use to strengthen my foundation in understanding the importance of possessing the ability to adapt in any given life situation. My family had to adapt communally, we had each other for support. Moving cross-country with my family transformed my life by illustrating the monumental change a group can achieve through collaborative leadership in supporting each other to find their niche and adapt to their new environment.
The first time I truly realized my leadership potential was working for a non-profit conservation agency. The summer after high school graduation I had the opportunity to work as a Forestry Intern surveying a tree-farm, making maps using GIS systems of the area, taking care of the nursery, and most importantly reaching out to the community by leading a group of teenagers who recently were released from Juvenile Corrections. I was skeptical when I began leading the group in building hiking trails. The first two weeks were unbearable at times; people flinging tools, goofing around, and it seemed they went out of their way to make my life miserable. After reflecting on how to make things better communally, because I hate assuming an authoritarian rule—it just isn’t me. I decided to start asserting myself, asking the workers individually if they could improve on certain areas to increase team productivity. I also found the confliction I was facing was a result of my leadership style being disconnected from the group. Many of the workers didn’t believe I was one of them, thinking my reserved persona was asserting my separation from the group. I countered the misconceptions through creating relationships with everyone. There wasn’t a workers manual I followed, or a work based incentive provided. Instead I wanted to be different than any boss I had ever had, I wanted to genuinely help them help myself. To conclude, I was able to assert and redefine my leadership capabilities in working with diverse populations, and actually apply my own genuine sense for caring to create an inclusive productive work environment.
Multiple experiences and places in time have shaped who I am today. My family, friends, co-workers, and others I’ve met along the way have directly influenced my construction of leadership. I feel a relational/collaborative model is inherently crucial in defining solutions to complex life challenges. An inclusive, supportive, and progressive environment is crucial in re-defining leadership theory.