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Learning to lead

A baker helping a customer in a store.

Extension’s leadership and community engagement’s Integral Leadership model has four core competencies within its foundation that “leadership creates public value and common good.” When seen on its own, the model and its subsequent learning curve can feel like steep goals to pursue and turn into action.

I would argue that sometimes we overthink the “how to” of becoming/being a leader and integrating this paradigm into our lives. Rather than being seen as a daunting task, there can be joy and simplicity in learning to live in leadership. Let me give an example that focuses on one area people may find challenging — diversity, equity, and inclusion.

A leadership lesson

Heading to Twin Valley, Minnesota for a wedding reception was an adventure into small town, rural Minnesota. As a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) woman, I ensured the gas tank was full, my cell phone charger packed, and the car camera working properly. I knew we would be returning to Fargo-Moorhead in the dark, which was always different — being in the middle of vast farmland with no other light in sight but that given by the moon. As a Midwesterner for years, I had grown used to the stares, and sometimes comments, when I ventured to communities where I was one of none.

I hit the road just as the sun was setting and maneuvered through the winding back roads like the country girl I was, familiar with curves and unexpected turns. Slowing to make our way through a small town, we noticed a number of people milling about the crossroads, laughing, rushing through the wind to brightly lit storefronts. Some held cups in their hands while others balanced shopping bags with a plate of something. Idling at the fourway, my friend and I looked left and right, as people moved in both directions. It seemed the whole town was out. 

Curious, we drove around the block and, after conferring, decided to see what the fuss was about. Our first stop was a warmly lit, cozy old building, the smell of cider in the air, with Minnesota gear and regionally-produced handmade items for sale. Now it made sense—it was small business Saturday.

As we milled about, the perfect gifts for out-of-town visitors and family on each coast were added to my bag, all proudly made in Minnesota. We were offered punch cards that, once filled, were entered into a drawing and supplied us with a free drink from the local bar. Directions to the next stop were given and, ready to move out the door, I noticed what was on the plates being carried around – lefse! 

Making our way to the delicacy I loved, we were surprised to find it wasn’t just lefse, but hot, off the griddle, made-in-front-of-you lefse with butter and (don’t judge me) cinnamon sugar provided. Other homemade baked and canned goods were available with crafts and locally-made sundries added to my growing number of bags. 

Recognized as strangers, and after a bit of an awkward pause, someone in that community stepped forward offering samples, conversation, laughter and friendliness at each location we visited. Moving from shop to shop, I was reminded of my time living in a small, rural, South Dakota town; Friday nights weren’t for bar-hopping, they were for house visits to connect with friends, have good food, and buy from independent consultants touting the latest jewelry, household gadgets, personal care must-haves, and comfy clothing. 

We finished our adventure at the local bar, filled to the brim with people enjoying the company of each other. As we looked around, I pondered the lessons gleaned from a quick decision to have an off-the-cuff adventure. Of course, there had been moments of silence and some vendors weren’t that eager to offer us service. What shone most brightly, though? The folx who had made the first move, stepped forward into a place of action when the space went quiet and extending a smile with ease. 

This is the lesson of leadership and a gentle reminder of its foundation – the willingness to move outside of the familiar and model behaviors that lean into difference.  One item I bought was a sweatshirt, complete with some familiar Minnesota sayings like “fer cute” and “Uff da,” all that I have used myself. My time in this out-of-the-way place left me with a sense of belonging and knowledge that, even in my difference, I was part of the larger community.

A leadership model

Leaders are doers – I invite you to reference the Integral Leadership model and explore where you are beginning to develop personal leadership competencies within each area. How do you contribute to “common good”? As we move into a new year, take a moment and question where you, and your community, can begin to open doors and invigorate the vitality that will ensure rural Minnesota towns continue to thrive and grow amidst change.

I witnessed exactly what welcoming communities could be. And I was reminded again of the simplicity of taking action with our equity and inclusion leadership work and blending it into every day life and experiences — one step at a time, one person at a time; offering lefse to a stranger, welcoming diverse travelers who materialize out of the darkness, and extending a warm cup of cider to drink over conversation and shopping.

Thanks to the Ulen community for hosting a vibrant small business Saturday.

Author: Jenn Aranda, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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