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What Congress Can Learn From the Shepherdess of Elk River

No one likes to deal with a do-or-die, rule-or-ruin sort of person.

It is not every day that the nation’s fiscal problems can be resolved by a shepherdess who lived nearly a century ago in northwestern Colorado. But these are not everyday problems.

Our budgetary and debt woes are so frustrating because the general shape of the long-term solution is so uncomplicated. Virtually all groups that objectively study the situation agree that the solution to a $16 trillion problem has to include some combination of increased revenues (i.e. taxes) and reduced spending (i.e. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Defense).

More revenues and less spending. Not a complicated concept. You can say it easily in one sentence.

Since Congress, however, has the collective political will of a field mouse, our elected representatives have spent years wrangling over exactly what form this inevitable combination of increases and decreases should take.

Enter Margaret Duncan Brown. I just happened to be reading her memoir (“Shepherdess of Elk River Valley“), as she lived in a splendid valley about 15 miles from where I live in northwestern Colorado. Her husband died as a young man in the influenza epidemic of 1918. They had only owned their ranch for a few years, and Ms. Brown was left with little money, no knowledge of business, and minimal knowledge of ranching.

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As she wrestled with creditors, lenders, homesteaders and a myriad of problems, she began to reflect in a diary.

“The concepts of business, at first a closed book to me, began to take on meaning. Something Dick (her late husband) had once said came back to me. ‘Don’t try to get your way all at once. Get your wedge in and work from there.’ I remembered this many times, but when it seemed impossible to deal with people, I found compromise to be invaluable in working things through. Perhaps compromise is the wedge! Another thing I learned, that helped in many relatively small deals, was that one must cultivate a relaxed attitude. No one likes to deal with a do-or-die, rule-or-ruin sort of person.”

I was immediately drawn to the common-sense clarity of her thinking.

When it seemed impossible to deal with people, I found compromise to be invaluable in working things through.

One must cultivate a relaxed attitude.

No one likes to deal with a do-or-die, rule-or-ruin sort of person.

Where in recent years have we needed this sort of simple rational approach to solving large intractable problems?

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To return to the shepherdess’s story, against all odds Margaret Duncan Brown not only survived but thrived. She proved to be an extraordinarily capable rancher and business person. She lived alone for the next 47 years, growing and expanding her ranch, and changing it over from cattle to sheep. As Paul Daugherty, the attorney for her estate who pieced together her memoir, described it:

“I found her writings stored around the ranch house, mostly on small tablets that she carried in her pockets while tending sheep. I had the enriching experience of organizing the writings… When she died, she had a beautiful, improved ranch of 713 acres, debt free. The richest heritage is, of course, her indomitable spirit, her great sensitiveness, perception and philosophy of life.”

As she learned early, to solve problems when faced with stubbornly opposing points of view and much on the line, you have to give and take and work your way to common ground.

Because no one, not ranchers in Colorado or legislators in Washington, likes to deal with a rule-or-ruin sort of person.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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