As a child who loved looking at house plans, I was amazed at the various architectural building styles that were used to construct houses. As far as I can remember, I could always be found in any store with my parents looking for real estate books to look at the different types of homes for sales or in the home improvement store looking at house renderings.
These renderings often time had elevations and floorplans so that viewers could glean a “feel” and “fit” if that house was the “perfect one” to build. My curiosity was always struck by the array of architectural designs, the creative styling, and choice of building materials used to create these renderings and elevations. Because of this fascination, I do not know if I missed my life’s calling of being an architect, but as I grew older and learned what they did, I viewed them as artists who took drawings and masterfully transformed the lines, shapes, colors, and pictures into blueprints that would bring these elements to life. When I reflect on my very own aspects of leadership, I am drawn back to my childhood days at the many opportunities that shaped the “blueprint” for my leadership potential and how these opportunities have transformed my leadership skills overtime.
My first encounters with leadership were birthed at church in the Sunday School ministry by my teacher, Mrs. Roslyn Elliott. At the age of six, I fondly remember during children’s devotion every second and fourth Sundays in the primary learners’ class being asked to sing songs for the class like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” or “He’s got The Whole World in His Hands”. I even remember having to recite bible verse such as Proverbs 3:5-6 and John 3:16 in my class. Now to the average person, what Mrs. Elliott had me doing would be no different than what is done in a traditional classroom when a teacher calls on a student to do something. Others would consider this more teaching than leading. And more than likely one who thinks this is probably correct. However, I found that throughout life, a leader’s highest call of responsibility is their ability to teach. Leaders have the ability to use his/her leadership opportunities as teachable moments through one-on-ones, by example, or other means. Mrs. Elliott, a retired math teacher herself, used these opportunities to “teach me to lead” as she asked me to stand, come to front of the class, sing songs, and recite bible verses. Using me as an example, she than had to me to work with other children in the class to learn songs and bible verses so that they could one day get up in do the very same thing I did.
During middle school, I would say that I was a very involved student in school life. I was a student leader in various organizations, maintained excellent grades, a student athletic, and on the scholastic team. And in those days if you did the morning announcements over television broadcast, which I did, you were considered popular among my peers. So as I transition to high school, I ran for student government president in my ninth grade year. Feeling that I brought a solid past of academic achievement, popularity, and athleticism, I truly felt that I had a good chance at winning. To my surprise, I was unsuccessful in my bid for the presidency to a senior. This crushed me and left me feeling that my peers thought because I was a freshman I did not have what I took to lead this type of student organization and that my previous experiences could not compare to those of upper classmen. And while I did not win, I still worked in student government and served as the spirt team/events committee chair. This committee had eight other members in our primary responsibility was planning and implementing homecoming activities, student dances, field days, and pep rallies.
I remained very active in my involvement; however, in the middle of the year, the student government president and treasurer got into some trouble and were asked to step down. Immediately, everyone new that the vice president, a junior, was slated to fill the president terms and that an election would be held to seek a new treasurer. Surprisingly, the principal and the advisor came in one day, and announced that they were appointed me to fill the term as the SGA president. Overwhelmed with excitement, but scared that I would not be accepted; my first task was to select a new treasurer. However, because we only had two months left in school, I requested to let the financial secretary serve this term. The body accepted in the school year ended successfully. What I learned in this experience was “never discount your worth” and that your work “always has significance. ” From middle to high school is a very transformational experience. Early on and even now, I learned that having a position of leadership is not your role to shine as a leader; it is more about making a difference and being committed to goals trying to be achieved. Leadership MentorsEarly on, I would say that not only did Mrs. Roslyn Elliott acknowledge through her action my ability to lead, but Mr. Larry Jones, my middle and high school technology teacher. Coach Bear, as he was referred to, a very stern and often time mean teacher who always nagged you about every little thing. He also was the chapter advisor of the Technology Student Association (TSA). During my sixth through eighth grade years, he would never let me run for an officer position in TSA. Instead, with a roaring voice Coach Bear would say, “Howell, you will serve as the association’s sergeant-at-arms!” I never thought it was fair, but was too scared to question him on this. Coach Bear would always get on me during chapter meetings, especially when he found out that during school I was clowning or cutting up with my friends. Why he did this, he always would explain that my officer role was a position of leadership and it was my responsibility to keep order in the meeting, to dispel all acts of misconduct, and never let the meeting and assembly of this association become rowdy or disruptive.
Now, I knew what my office position entailed; yet, Coach Bear believed if you are doing something that’s out of order, than you’ll lead people in that same direction. He would always say, “Howell, when students see you acting or clowning out in classrooms or in the halls, what can you do or say to them during the meeting…You have to lead by example!!!!” If there was one lesson on leadership, his daily scoldings epitomize the importance of whatever a leader does, is far greater than what a leader can say. I had the privilege of starting my federal government career in the summer of 2005 as an intern in the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University through my enrollment in USDA’s Student Career Experience Program (SCEP). These types of job opportunities are usually reserved for college freshman. Nonetheless, Dr. Conrad Gilliam, the chair of the agriculture department, called me and asked me about participating in the program. Dr. Gilliam, who only knew me through my older cousins in his classes during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, told him that I was planning to enroll at the university. Dr. Gilliam would go on to tell me that based upon the scholastic aptitude of my cousins; he would give me a spot as a high school senior to work as a field technician at a GS-3. Now, I had never had a job that paid because I worked on my families farming operation. I was super excited; a paying job working on the farm. Where I came from, your pay on the farm took forms other than in monetary value or denominations. I can remember starting this job and Dr. Gilliam telling me, “I’ll give you every chance to get it right, but I’ll never give you an opportunity to get it wrong. ” At first, I never really grasp what he was trying to say, but I knew that I didn’t want to mess this opportunity up. After several weeks of being on the job, I wanted to know how I was doing, Dr. Gilliam would reply, “just keep working. ” This seemed frustrating, but towards the end of the summer, I remember him telling me, you were not my pick or my choice, but I selected you not because of your cousins vouching for you, but because I saw your passion. Dr. Gilliam taking a chance helped me realize the true sense of risk taking. Not knowing whether I was going to succeed or fail, he gave a chance to prove that I was capable of doing the work. This opportunity also gave me a sense of responsibility and accountability. Yes, I strived to get my work done and determined to ensure that it was done right. As I think back to 2005, the greatest thing that I received from this opportunity was a sense of purpose. For the first time, I saw myself in service—working with other agriculturalists with a common goal of providing quality food, fiber, fuel, and feed for the world. If there is one essential element in leadership, a leader must have a sense of purpose which leads to a greater impact.
A key to anyone’s personal success is to be self-motivated. As a leader, motivation is a fundamental necessity in working and leading others. Personally, I am motivated as a leader when I see others whom I have interacted with accomplishing their own goals and dreams. Aside from this, I would say that I am also motivated by my past experiences and the lessons learned from them. Good or Bad, I want to use these experiences to help guide and leads others to achieve their own personal success. I have a sense of satisfaction when I witness other succeed, just as teachers are proud when they have students pass a test, accomplish a task, or master a subject area they found difficult. I would say that I am driven to achieve beyond expectation set for myself and not by status, fame, accolades, etc. My leadership is driven by passion with a purpose to motivate myself and others to achieve for the sake of achievement. In my mind, the greatest levels of innovation and creativity happen when you at the same time are helping yourself help others see beyond his or herself to be motivated by a desire to achieve something they seem unfathomable.
I am definitely not a stranger to the agriculture industry. I am very passionate about my career aspirations and my profession. As I work with students, veterans in others entering agricultural fields, there a three pieces of advice that I arm them with. First, I let them know they know more than what they think they may know. Why? Their perspectives on agricultural issues provide broader outlooks on developing solutions and strategies. Innovation and creativity can be drawn from many different frames of references. New leaders with their very own past experiences and perspectives helps drive a new sense of innovation that ultimately helps the industry stay informed and relevant. The second piece of advice is to try new things and experience new opportunities. Similarly to Shakespeare’s thoughts about the oyster and the pearl, for new leaders in agriculture the opportunity is the “oyster”; the knowledge and information gleaned from the experience is the “pearl. “
From my own personal experiences, the path to leadership has shown me who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, and how to take risks. Seizing new opportunities along this journey has helped me become a stronger persons and a better leader. And while this journey in leadership keeps me refining at my leadership skills, the most important piece of advice that I could give to an emerging leader in agriculture is being able to seek advice and guidance from others. In any job or career, we should always seek out mentors or others that can help us reach our goals. These interactions allows for new leaders to develop and build networks. Those networks will be important not just if the leader is in an agriculture career, but if they aspire to move into politics, government, or even higher education. In return, that same leader who is mentored for career development and growth, then turns back and seeks a mentee to help nurture their leadership potential.
My father, a decorated soldier in the United States Army was deployed four times during 2011-2016 to Iraq and Afghanistan. When he returned in 2017, he was diagnosed with a very severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His symptoms and side effects were not noticed by our family; however, we notice one day that he had a very serious breakdown which hospitalized him. Since that time, he had to undergo all types of tests and receive therapy treatments. He lives on with this disease today, yet it was a life-altering moment for me. First, his time away from home during the deployments caused me to have to step in and fill the void while he was oversees fighting. Added to this, I was working on my master’s degree and in the middle of a job transition and relocating to another area. I felt that I was going to have a nervous breakdown with my own personal issues, not mention all the responsibilities to fulfill for my father. This time period showed me my leadership abilities at its best. I became more of a task master and for the first time started using a planned agenda for each day. I also had to take strategic steps in managing the family businesses, working out the logistics for many areas that I knew about, but were not involved in on a day-to-day basis. I began to understand the art of delegating responsibilities, but most important this time allowed me to grow my business acumen.
During 2014-2016, I had to make some very serious financial decisions for my family’s farm and trucking company. These decisions resulted in some negative impacts to some longstanding contract opportunities and business relationships my father had developed over several years. I was force to liquidate some assets of the family businesses to make ends-meet and to avoid major bankruptcy. My decisions I thought would help the businesses succeed and grow profits by 20% over three years, but because of my lack of subject matter expertise in trucking company, I was forced to lay off employees and binded to some contracts that cause the business to go upside down due to unrealistic expectations. To cover the losses in one, I had to liquidate stands of timber and sell off some areas of the operation to stay afloat. Scared that I was going to lose everything my father had built for forty years, I was unsure how he would feel about my erroneous decisions and their lasting impacts. And even though he was very upset; surprisingly, his reactions were better than expected. In while my father was battling PTSD in 2017, he also was dealing with my bad decision making in the previous years.
Seeing him struggle through all of this made me more confident. Why, because he used my mistakes to overcome his battles with PTSD and worked effortlessly rebuild his business. And while rebuilding the business, he made an ultimate decision not to let his illness affect his ability to lead. Simply, this taught me courage. His determination taught that like him in business, we all make bad decisions and choices, and the revelation is that we have the opportunity to make better decisions to correct mistakes. If we cannot, pick up the pieces remaining and start over! Seeing him finesse through all of this helped me better understand what it means to be a true leader. I thought that leaders should not make mistakes, and with this, my biggest problem was not being able to be successful in handling my father affairs during his absences. His biggest issue with me was beating myself over the head for the mistakes. It was at this moment where I truly learned a very important lesson−We all will take “L’s” in life; you determine whether it’s a “Loss” or “Lesson. ” Mistakes, bad decisions, misinformation, and lack of understanding are all things that can affect a leader’s ability to lead. The key is not to get stuck there, but through them, persevere through obstacle−making them teachable moments.
As I embark up this doctoral journey, I want to grow as a transformative servant leader while focusing on my values that influences others. Through the program, I want to inspire others to engage civically in their communities to improve levels of educational attainment, social economic status, and to create opportunities for economic development. Ultimately, I want to couple academia, policy, and advocacy to innovate and implement solutions in the agriculture sector that eliminates poverty, equity and access issues, that improves rural life, and creates a pipeline for new talent in the agriculture industry. To achieve these, I am engaged in focus groups that look into some of the causes of these issues and I am working on a taskforce to create viable opportunities for engagement in building community wealth that is re-circulated within the community.
In my efforts to grow as a leader, it is very important for me to be able to lead myself before I lead others. I’ve understood from a very early age that if you are going to be a leader, than you must first be a learner. In through time and effort, my leadership is a reflection of the quality of work I produce. This work becomes my signature of authenticity to the world not to suggest that I can lead, but to show that my leadership is not wrapped up in me holding a position, but more importantly, it shows a commitment to the work at hand. My level of commitment to the work will mostly be measured by my ability to influence. A measure in a leader’s success is shown in their acceptance by others whom they lead. More than just who you are, people who are lead want to know the important “whys” of your leadership. The right attitude, call to action, passion and purpose is my combination for leadership. The pursuit, not the position, gives me my purpose.
My life’s purpose is to impact people in such a way that motivates them to see themselves in a sense they could never imagine for themselves. The P-20 program allows me to bring together the spheres that have the greatest influences on people view themselves respective to education, community, business, and society. For this cause, completing this program not only gives me the academic credentials needed, but develops and nurture my research skills, and will provide the resources to help me build professional networks to become a change agent. The dynamics P-20 leadership helps creates such a meaningful network for me for so many reasons. Architects spend countless hours drawing and redrawing blueprints to ensure the correct perspective and scale. In before they can be used to build or construct anything, they must receive a stamp of approval. This program is the beginning of a lifetime of designing and reshaping my capacity for leadership. Besides receiving the degree, the greatest reward is that stamp of approval generated through professors and fellow cohort members that will inspire and push me to be a better leader and person ready to help change the world.
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