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2 Leadership Lessons from a Beautiful Place

I recently had the privilege of going on a trip with Food for the Hungry to Placer Bonito, Dominican Republic.  Two leadership lessons emerged from our time there.

A beautiful place

Placer Bonito (literally “a beautiful place”) is a poverty-stricken village in the southwestern portion of the Dominican Republic.  (As you may remember from geography lessons, the Dominican Republic is in the Caribbean, southwest of Cuba, and about a 2.5-hour flight from Miami.)

While the countryside around Placer Bonito is indeed beautiful, the village itself is very depressed. Small cement houses with metal roofs serve as homes for the hundreds of people who live there.  Infrequent rains mean inconsistent crops.  Families are very poor. Education levels are very low.  Childhood disease is a very real problem.

For several years, Food for the Hungry has been helping the leaders of this village to get access to a consistent, clean water supply for their homes and crops.  Food for the Hungry is a Christian non-profit that provides funds and training to help poor people around the world.  The Placer Bonito project is one of several they’ve undertaken in the DR in the past ten years.

I got to spend two days in Placer Bonito, learning about the 3.5-mile pipeline the villagers laid to get water from a mountain spring to their village.  I also saw the training gardens Food for the Hungry is using to teach the village farmers about better planting-and-harvesting practices.  As one of 20 people on this trip, I met with the village leaders, all of whom had been involved in digging the 3.5 mile ditch up into the mountains, laying the pipe and installing the valve stations for the irrigation system.

Day one of our trip was all about the project.   Day two was all about baseball. At first, I was perplexed when I saw “baseball game with village youth” on the agenda handed out ahead of time.  This doesn’t seem to be the best way to spend our valuable time.  How is this helping the village to become more self-sufficient and address some of their deep-rooted economic issues?  We only had two days “in country.”  Shouldn’t our time be best spent working or training or leading them in some important way?

Boy, was I wrong.  On at least two levels.

First, if you are into baseball, you will know that the Dominican Republic, while a very small nation with many 3rd-world problems, produces some of the best 1st-world professional baseball players.  By spending time in a pick-up game of their national sport with these villagers, we went from being the “rich American tourists” to friends and teammates.  Suddenly they got to help us (particularly those of us who aren’t very good at baseball!).  No longer were they simply the recipients of our generosity.  We were on an equal footing, laughing and cheering together (despite the language barriers).

Secondly, I have memories.  Richer, more emotionally-charged memories.  I have faces and names.  Team members I laughed with.  Players that helped one another. I find a warm spot in my heart for these people who live thousands of miles away in a world that is millions of miles apart from my world.  Indeed, the story of Placer Domingo got lodged in my heart not primarily when I saw the benefits of crop rotation being demonstrated by FftH or the mechanics of the valve stations that allowed farmers to access consistent water for their fields.

Leadership is a contact sport

And that reminded me of two important leadership lessons.  First, leadership is a contact sport.  It wasn’t until we got divided up into teams and helped each other play baseball that the barriers went down.  If we truly want to influence the people around us, we must join them in their world and spend time with them there.

Leadership is all about the story

Secondly, truth is oftentimes best communicated through story.  Leadership principles, parables and fables are all very memorable.  The people we seek to influence may not easily remember the specific points we want them to get, but tell them a story and watch their retention skyrocket. I’ll long remember my trip to Place Bonito because of the story of baseball.

Fellow leader – how are doing at these two lessons?  If leadership is a contact sport, what are you doing to strengthen your ties to those you seek to influence?  How purposeful are you about time with them?  How can you do a better job?  And how are you doing at telling the story?  What memories and word pictures are you creating in their minds?  Leadership is first-and-foremost about people.  By practicing these two lessons, you will increase your leadership effectiveness.