Today, we observe the 57th inauguration of a President of the United States. From the first inauguration in 1789 of George Washington in New York to today’s swearing in of Barack Obama in the city that bears Washington’s name, the simple act of taking the oath of office symbolizes, for me, the importance and impact of leadership.
For 37 years, my Uncle Leonard has operated a fruit and vegetable stand in my hometown of Gray, GA. Last week, I spent time with Uncle Leonard talking baseball and doing many of the chores around the stand that I did for him many moons ago when I was a kid. Those tasks taught me the value of hard work. However, the fruit stand and the way my uncle conducts his business there continues to impart valuable truths. In today’s post, I would like to share with you 3 leadership truths from the fruit stand.
❶ Fruit, like opportunities, will spoil if not acted on quickly.
“The opportunity of a lifetime only lasts for the lifetime of the opportunity” is a phrase coined by the writer W.E.B.Du Bois to describe the importance of understanding the urgency of seizing opportunities. My uncle knows that fruit will only last so long – leaders must recognize opportunity and to be willing to act even when others will not. When faced with the opportunity of purchasing Louisiana from the French President, Thomas Jefferson did not fail to act. Despite the fact that the purchase of land by the government was counter to his political ideology, he knew the opportunity of the purchase was good for the country. He knew if he did not act on the opportunity quickly, it would spoil, and the offer to buy Louisiana would be made available to another county.
❷ Compromise is the bedrock of a profitable Fruit Stand
“To make money in the fruit selling business, you always have to be willing to take half a loaf” is what my uncle says is key to his success. He is consistently taking “half a loaf” by compromising with everyone–from the farmers he buys his fruit from to customers who are always looking to make a deal. His willingness to give and take has kept my uncle in business for 37 years, enabling him to withstand competition from large grocery chains that regularly beat him on price and selection. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson faced a huge problem in getting the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed by the Congress. The problem? He could not get the votes of fellow Southern Democrats. The President crafted a compromise with Republicans in which he “traded off “some of the things in the bill to get the “loaf passed.” Ironically, ten years later in 1974, when the Civil Rights Act was up for reauthorization by the Congress, the president doing the compromising was Gerald Ford, who was one of the Republicans that Johnson had compromised with in 1964.
❸ It takes courage to run a fruit stand
For 37 years, Uncle Leonard has proudly operated his business 6 days a week from 7:00 AM -7:00 PM from a truck parked under a tent. Exposed to the cold in the winter and the Sahara- like heat of the central Georgia summer, Uncle Leonard cheerily greets customers, tends to the produce, and conducts all the high finance of the business. The fruit stand has provided a good living for my uncle and his family; it has paid the mortgage, put his children through college, and provided the first job for countless of kids like me. Uncle Leonard does not see himself as courageous, he sees himself as a regular American running a small town business against the odds in a mostly difficult economic climate. You may not see Uncle Leonard as courageous either, until you look a bit more closely. Because Uncle Leonard has run a successful business for 37 years mostly by himself, without a government bailout or handout, and without the benefit of sight…because my Uncle Leonard is blind. Leadership, in all of its many forms, requires courage. Courage requires taking a risk and the ultimate risk for an elective official, is to take a stand that is right for the county…but will lead to defeat at the polls.
The issue of slavery was front and center in the Illinois senatorial election of 1858. The Democratic candidate, Stephen Douglas, was on the side of popular opinion in support of continuing the institution and the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was against the continuation of slavery. In a series of dramatic debates across the state, Lincoln and Douglas, with daring and skill, discussed the merits of slavery. In the end, Douglas won the senate seat. However, the courage of Lincoln to oppose slavery was not lost on the nation. Because in just two years after those landmark debates, Lincoln was elected President.
The Bottom Line: The Value of Fruit Stand Leadership
This observation about leadership from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu clearly describes the fruit stand leadership I learned from Uncle Leonard: A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim is fulfilled. On this inauguration day, I hope we will remember my Uncle Leonard’s 3 fruit stand leadership lessons:
1, Opportunities will spoil if not acted on quickly
2. Compromise is the bedrock of profitability
3. It takes courage to run a fruit stand
Let’s hope our leaders will spend some time in the fruit stand.