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

Fresh Turkey: Breaking Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving traditions are treasured. Thinking back though, I realize that it has been a very long time since I had a traditional Thanksgiving. Hearing people discuss their plans for the upcoming weekend of feasts had me feeling a bit dejected for the past few weeks. If you share this circumstance or have occasionally caught your lower lip jutting out towards self-pity in recent days, take heart. I am here to tell you that missing out on all the usual trimmings really isn’t the same thing as missing out on all the fun.

The Gumboot proclaimed winner of the ‘war of the holidays’ earns its crown for many reasons. Many of those things that make Thanksgiving so favored are conspicuously absent from what has become my atypical Thanksgiving.  If upholding tradition is an option, it is still probably the best option but, if not, there is still hope for your Thanksgiving weekend to be full of all the warmth and happiness it’s meant to bring.

Coming from a large matriarchal family, my Italian grandmother and her many daughters (my mom and aunts) have always been counted on to orchestrate incredible feats of holiday gatherings where food and family take center stage. Thanksgiving, however, has become the exception to this rule since the year my family elders decided they would rather roast themselves in the Palm Springs sun than roast turkeys to feed 40 people.

Since the first abandonment occurred, I have been launched from my cozy continuum of consumption and into an experiment of creating my own holiday rules. Each year a new occasion has been invented or discovered. One year was an Oregon art gallery where many new friends were eagerly introduced to the Canadian version of a holiday they also love. Another year was a potluck pool party with all the fixins. Another was simply a long table in a tiny apartment packed with close friends. Whether they were spent with old friends or new, these deviations from the thanksgiving norm that I grew up with have been filled with good company, delicious food, and the thrill of breaking free from the norm and creating something new.

The emptiness left by a tradition lost can seem much more difficult to fill than that of a hungry belly. But losing one isn’t always an occasion to grieve. It can also be an opportunity to create new experiences that will stand out from the repetition of other holidays and to create something truly memorable and soul filling. The hunt is on for this year’s adventure. I’m still not sure what it will be, but I am certain that I will find a sense of community, if not a sense of tradition, wherever I wind up.

Slow Down, Bee-atch!

(If you’re a returning Gumboot reader, you’ll know that me and editor Kurt Heinrich just got back from a trip to Oregon and the U-S of A. If this is your first time reading the Gumboot – good for you.)

2pac2Pac changed my life. Well — not really. I’m being dramatic. It’s more like he changed the pace of my life, or rather, he’s become a reminder that I need slow things down just a little. Allow me to explain. A’ight?

It was the second day of our trip and Kurt was driving towards the Oregon/Washington border. Being the totally accommodating and flexible person I am (shall we debate this point, Kurt?) I handed over full control of the car stereo. He was, after all, the one doing the driving. We were two people with nothing but the horizon and Oregonian breweries in our sights and 2Pac on the stereo – we had our mind on the money and our money on the mind – or was that Biggie Smalls?

Kurt was driving the speed limit along the 101 just outside of Olympia with none other than 2Pac singing ‘his pain’ on the stereo when an under-cover, Washington state-trooper driving the other direction pulled a U-turn and started tailing us. Kurt’s palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy, there’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti… wait a minute….

Lets just say he was totally freaked. We were both freaked. I mean, what other reason would the trooper have to follow us other than to pull us over? Were we speeding? No. Were we up to no good because we were listening to 2Pac and “his pain?” U.S. state troopers aren’t like our run-of-the-mill highway patrol (a league of men and women I almost never see, in this country.) State troopers wait with bated breath to catch you pulling 60 in a 50 zone — especially in Oregon. It’s how they make up for the fact they don’t have a sales tax. State troopers along the Washington/Oregon border have a reputation and not for a moment did we even consider that our predicament would be the exception.

Thankfully, our Deus Ex Machina came in the form of a speeding car, traveling the other way, over the crest of a hill. The trooper hit his lights and turned around, following our god machine the other way. What a save — it felt like fate had stepped in and spared us the cost of several dinners out and brews-on-tap — our vacation was saved by a red Toyota driving the other way! Our relief was slightly delayed because we thought the flashing lights and siren were for us. By the time we realized we were in the safe, the trooper was already chasing the other car and we were well on our way towards Oregon. We both calmed down and returned to 2Pac, whose metre and verse is now a reminder for me to take it nice and slow: “best be prepared for the Outlawz, here we come.”

Thank you 2Pac.

Two Nations Under God

The bridge into Longview - Anytown USA

The bridge into Longview - Anytown USA

On the morning of Saturday, December 5, shortly before your weekly photograph was being posted, Theo and I sat in a funky Pancake House in the mill town of Longview, Washington. We’d been invited there by our hosts, who’d lived in Longview for decades. One owned and ran a cute pub and the other was a Pulitzer winning journalist who’d cut her teeth covering the Mt. St Helen’s eruption in the 1980s.

The Pancake House was as you’d expect it to be. Jammed with dozens of large locals, many of whose jobs revolved around the resource industry. The parking lot was jammed with pick-up trucks. The locals tended to be overweight and jolly. Everyone was on a first name basis. The menu was classic Americana – bacon, eggs, pigs in a blanket, eggs benny, and “roll ups” (similar to crepes). Folks were friendly and seemed relatively upbeat, despite the economic ruin that was slowly befalling the whole town.

At one time, Longview had been a bustling place full of dreams. It was founded by a timber baron from Kansas who nearly bankrupted himself trying to create the perfect planned city. Like Washington DC, the whole town is arranged like spokes on a bicycle, with all roads leading to the centre of town prominently dominated by the aging hotel and library. Not unlike many other American and Canadian cities, the faltering of timbre prices hasn’t helped locals. As prices have dropped and environmental awareness of animals like the spotted owl has risen, companies like Weyerhauser and Longview Fibre have been forced to shed high-paying jobs. The current recession is the nail in the coffin.

Still, things go on. People survive. They shop at Walmart, Home Depot and the plethora of other big box stores that have obliterated downtown and turned covered malls into outdoor parking lots surrounded by cheap outlets (when I asked one of my hosts about why covered malls were no longer popular, he replied that nowadays people just wanted to drive there car up to the front of their store, buy everything they needed and leave with the minimum walking required). People eat at Applebees or, if they’re looking to save money, Taco Time or McDonalalds. For dinner parties they don’t buy Brie, Blue Cheese, or Smoked Gouda. They buy Tillicum Cheddar. For a night out they enjoy having drinks and pizza at their local cinemas (that’s right, you can get a pitcher and a pizza and the movies down there). On the drive home in the evening, it’s hard to miss religious scriptures on billboards around the area or, as Christmas approaches, over-the-top religious displays of Jesus in the manger, adorning select lawns. In the evening, when they flip on the TV, it’s hard to miss the irate American boosterism of the FOX news channel. All of this is a defining characteristic of a community, which stretches from sea to sea. But it isn’t the only national community that connects citizens of the United States.

Clyde Common - the usual trendy Portland eatery.

Clyde Common - the usual trendy Portland eatery.

Eight hours after our meal at the Pancake House, Theo and I sat in a small bistro some 40 miles away, located in downtown Portland, Oregon. The name of the place was Clyde Common. It was hipster central. The menu was something out of a foodie magazine with extra shades of pretentiousness. We ordered the pork belly, chicken liver and taglietelle and chanterelle pasta. It was an alright (though the chicken liver was a solid 1 1/2 star out of 5) meal. We sat perched on a balcony above dozens of daintily clad professionals. They drank Sunrise cocktails (not Bud) and certainly a quarter at least were vegetarian. These were the type who watched CNN for their news and scorned FOX as sensationalist right wing propaganda. They drove Japanese sedans and lived in condos, travelling from grocery store to home by bike. Everyone had (the appearance of) money and at least a bachelors degree.

It was all a major contrast to the America we had been in the morning before. While there’s always been differences between country folk and city slickers, it was startling to see just how big of a difference there is. The glue like (like using the same currency, swearing to the same Constitution, and watching the same football teams battle it out year after year) still binds. But will it continue to bind the nation together in the longterm? Fissures to national commonality (critical to any “national community”) seem to only be growing deeper, as each side is increasingly isolated by its own philosophies, values, traditions, and media.

While Canada certainly has it’s own gaps between rural and urban folks, they never struck me as sharply as that witnessed down South. I only wonder what the consequences of this will be for the future of the United States.