Lead Like a Pioneer

The Golden Pioneer in Salem, Oregon – Edmund Garman / Flickr

A few weeks ago, Michelle (my lovely wife who is her own, powerful woman) and I took a road trip through Oregon – we travelled down the coast (pirates!), inland through a State Forest (Tillamook!), and then wrapped up our brief trip with some urban adventures in Portland (craft everything!). Michelle and I got a firsthand look at how the philosophy of the state’s early pioneers continues to influence that culture of leadership in Oregon. Through conversations, news, museums, universities, and various other sound bites, I learned about the pioneer culture of Oregon and how such a philosophy still informs and inspires the community to this day.

This article is about leadership – specifically, how to lead like a pioneer. Suffice to say that pioneers get there first, they take risks, and they build things in new places. Sometimes this happens literally (e.g. at the end of the Oregon Trail) and sometimes this happens metaphorically (e.g. Portland is a recycling pioneer, with a program that dates back to the 1970s).

EXAMPLES OF Pioneering in Oregon

Being an actual pioneer. From 1800-1850, pioneers (explorers, settlers, downtrodden immigrants with no space to move in Eastern America) moved West in search of land and opportunity. To call such an endeavour a “massive risk” is a bit of an understatement, as hewing their existence from an unknown land resulted in failure – in the form of turning back, lost savings, or even death – for many settlers. Sure, some of these pioneers have been individually celebrated for their leadership; for the most part, though, these were folks who lead without title and by example.

ahockley / Flickr

Recycling and other sustainable things. When Mrs. Joe H. Rand (a recycling activist before there were really recycling activists) spoke with Oregon Governor Tom McCall in February 1970, her support of Governor McCall’s insistence that bottlers (and other beverage industry executives) use returnable containers absolutely went against common practice in Oregon as well as every other state in the union, which McCall argued wasted 48 billion bottles and cans per year. “Despite…opposition [from beverage companies], the Oregon State Legislature passed the Bottle Bill in July, 1971, becoming a national leader for recycling. Several other states followed with similar laws,” says the Oregon Historical Project.  In the 1970s, while everyone else was clogging dumps with glass and metal beverage containers, folks in Oregon – channelling their pioneer spirit – led change with creative problem solving and passionate activism. This leadership in thought still informs the state’s relationship with cutting-edge (by North American standards, anyway) sustainability practices.

The “hot spot map” from The Portland Plan details what parts of the city are accessible within 20 minutes.

Developing 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is urban planning leadership at its best. The objective of The Portland Plan (see “hot-spot” map) is to allow its citizens to access pretty much everything – food, entertainment, green space, health services, educational resources, the best craft beer you’ve ever had – within 20 minutes of walking or cycling or taking transit (more or less, as this isn’t an exact science). Here’s what the plan says about the above map: “This mapping analysis highlights areas that have relatively good, walkable access to commercial services and amenities. It indicates locations that have concentrations of commercial services that are within relatively short walking distance of homes. Besides taking into account the availability of grocery stores and other commercial services, it takes into account factors that impact pedestrian access, such as sidewalks, street connectivity, and topography.” Pretty great, right? Such a unique focus on urban development is being analysed and adopted by cities all around North America, which tends to happen when communities pioneer innovative, efficient and elegant ideas.

How to Lead Like a Pioneer

There are a number of lessons we can draw from these examples when crafting our own philosophy around leading like a pioneer.

Pioneers, more often than not, get there first (this is to say that many settlers got to Oregon before other would-be-settlers  – there were already a lot of people living in the place by the time white folks showed up). This could mean that you beat competitors to investors or the marketplace with your great idea, or it could mean that you’re the first person to bring an existing idea to your workplace, team or neighbourhood.

Some examples of getting there first include Mark Zuckerberg, Jane Jacobs, and the Khan Academy.

Cliché or not, pioneers are also known for their work ethic – hewing their community (a more dramatic writer might say “their existence”) from the wilderness around them. Consequently, whatever you decide to pioneer needs to embody the kind of work ethic that has become the stuff of legend…and the narrative for The Oregon Trail.

Most importantly, pioneers are risk takers. Think of an idea, strategy, plan, program, innovation, or product that you’ve been itching to launch – are you nervous? Well, try getting nervited (nervous + excited = nervited) about how you will build, test, analyze, and launch your great idea in a way that realizes its potential.

Masthead photo courtesy of zion fiction’s photostream on Flickr

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