By Stephen Gilliland
Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks for the blessing in our lives – health, abundance, family, friendships. As leaders, it can also be a time to thank our leadership role models, those people who have taught us valuable lessons about being an effective leader. One of my earliest leadership role models was my Uncle Fred. Starting when I was 14, I spent six summers on my Uncle’s farm in northern Alberta, up near the article circle when summer days are 20+ hours long. While my school friends were enjoying summer on the lake in central British Columbia, I was driving a tractor, mending barbwire fences, and learning lessons about what it meant to work hard.
My Uncle Fred had taken over the family farm when he was a teenager. My grandfather went to work in the coal mines to provide enough money for his family and the farm. Uncle Fred dropped out of high school to complete the harvest one fall and never went back. He grew that farm from a simple homestead to a large cattle and canola producing operation. Despite his lack of formal education, Uncle Fred kept up with the latest advancements and was one of the first in the area to embrace commodity futures as a way to hedge against crop price fluctuations.
I was not a gifted farmer. My older brother could fix anything on the farm (he is now a mechanical engineer). I seemed better at breaking things. But my Uncle took me when I was 14 and gave me the responsibility of raking hay. I had to maintain the tractor and the rakes. I learned to test the hay to see if it was dry enough to rake. He made me the expert on hay raking – master of my small domain.
My favourite job was stacking the half ton round hay bales with a front end loader on a tractor. We stacked the bales in the fields in the summer and then when feeding cattle in winter, they would haul the hay with a wagon that held 14 bales. I learned to drive into a field of spot clusters of 14 bales to minimize driving time. I could stack a field efficiently and effectively. And my Uncle recognized my ability to stack hay and showered me with praise. When introducing me to others in the community, he would always share with them that I was the best hay stacker he had ever seen. Through his leadership, I gained confidence in my ability, as a hay stack, a farmer, and a person. Years later, whenever I would see Uncle Fred, he would often reminisce about my hay stacking prowess.
My Uncle Fred died at age 84 a couple of weeks ago. He was still actively farming. A lifelong bachelor he kept active managing his farm, and even driving a tractor himself, up until the end. He died suddenly of a heart attack while getting his mail in town. It is how he would have wanted to go – he worried about losing his independence and not being able to look after himself.
I feel very fortunate that two years ago, on a family cruise in the Caribbean, I took the time to thank Uncle Fred for his lessons in leadership. I told him about how he built my confidence and self-efficacy where there was little natural ability. Isn’t that what great leaders do? They bring out the best in their followers. The leader I am today, is shaped by the leadership of my Uncle Fred. Thank you Uncle Fred! Have you taken the opportunity to thank your leadership role models?
Associate Dean, Executive Education