Leadership and the Ecosystems of Small Towns (part 1 of 5)

By Tom Davidson

What every proactive leader must do to build connections…the first step!

Small towns can teach us a great deal about leadership, not about their budgets, by-laws or bookkeeping, but about their ecosystems.  

For example, after a promotion in 1983, I was preparing to move from one small town to another, so I took a trip to my new hometown of West Point, VA to find an apartment. Fortunately, I had already learned something about getting the inside story on such things, so I skipped the classifieds and went directly to the U.S. Post Office. 

After introducing myself to the postmaster and asking if he knew of any apartments for rent, he asked me a very important question: “Who are you?” Having already given my name, I knew that he was asking for a deeper understanding of my connection to the community. 

People need to know you to help you 
After sharing my story, it turned out that my new boss was the postmaster’s neighbor. He knew the other foresters in town. He liked the fact that I’d be working for the largest employer there, and we both loved dogs! 

With his “connections” questions satisfied, he pointed me to his sister, who worked at the florist shop two blocks down the street and who “just might” have an apartment for rent. On the way to the florist (and just one block away) a man stepped out of a storefront into my path and asked, “Are you the forester looking for an apartment?” 

Now, that’s a small town! 

Building your small-town ecosystem 
Like small towns, every organization is an ecosystem, with many intricate and significant connections like these. 

Just as foresters are stewards of ecosystems, leaders are stewards of connections. When these connections break down, people experience miscues and miscommunications, internal competition, and suboptimal results. When connections are strengthened, leaders get free-flowing communication, willing teamwork, and exceptional results. 

Go down Main St. for better connections 
Taking a cue from small towns, there are five categories of things every leader can do to build connections among people. The following acronym for what you can do spells “Main St.” for a reason. Here’s the first: 

“M” is for Mingle – Leave the emails and texts behind more often and build personal connections proactively. Mingle with people informally, so that you get to know each other as people, not just fellow employees. Here’s where you will find opportunities to mingle and interact more often: 

1.Wherever there is food. Mingle with people in the office kitchen, agency lunchroom or wherever people gather to eat and drink. This is why churches have so many potluck dinners!

2. Wherever people stop and talk. Mingle with people at the water fountain, employee lounge, scale house or clock room, wherever they naturally stop and talk.

3. Wherever there are tailgates. Pickup trucks are magnets for conversation. Look for open tailgates in the parking lot, at meetings, or after fieldwork and fires.

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