Notes from the Perimeter

Monday, April 20, 2009

War of the Weeds

Maybe you can please most of the people some of the time, and some of the people most of the time, but there will be some people who simply refuse to be pleased no matter what. When President Obama, at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, called daughter Malia his “technical advisor” after she got the sound system working, somebody no doubt somewhere could be heard to holler, “That’s taking jobs away from Americans!” Maybe Michelle Obama got toughened up on the campaign trail but I bet even she was surprised by the criticism that arose regarding what could be considered an innocuous, if not wholly worthwhile, endeavor.

On March 26, Executive Director Bonnie McCarvel and Program Coordinator Janet Braun of the Mid America CropLife Association sent the First Lady a letter objecting to the fact that the garden she has created on the White House grounds is organic.

Yes, the First Lady is guilty of not supporting pesticides.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

Starting in the early 1900's, technology advances have allowed farmers to continually produce more food on less land while using less human labor. Over time, Americans were able to leave the time-consuming demands of farming to pursue new interests and develop new abilities. Today, an average farmer produces enough food to feed 144 Americans who are living longer lives than many of their ancestors. Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today. If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?...

As you go about planning and planting the White House garden, we respectfully encourage you to recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing a safe and economical food supply.

These conventional farming “ambassadors,” as they call themselves, make some valid points. Modern farmers employ many environmentally friendly methods such as reduced tillage practices, precision and contour farming, and grass waterways to prevent erosion. They use biogenetics to implant pest resistance directly into seeds and GPS technology to target specific areas for pesticide spraying. Huge combines and powerful tractors have increased the efficiency of harvesting, thus saving time and energy. Farmlands provide most of the nation’s wildlife habitat.

Nevertheless, conventional agriculture is synonymous with large-scale agribusiness which, in transforming the faming landscape, has resulted in the disappearance of the small family-owned farm, a decrease in the availability of fresh, flavorful vegetables (just compare a packaged “vine-ripened” tomato with one plucked warm from the garden), and a dangerous dependence on pesticides and biogenetics which have the potential to alter the balance of nature and cause unintended consequences.

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we abandon large-scale agriculture in favor of tilling our own little acres. This more economical and plentiful food supply is a necessary part of our diets. However, the conventional and the organic are not mutually exclusive: there’s a place for the organic garden, too. The recent emphasis on supporting locally grown produce has raised awareness of the energy costs involved in long-distance transportation of food, the health benefits of eating produce in season, and simply the incomparable pleasure of food that is truly “garden fresh.”

Isn’t an essential aspect of being American the right to choose? Michelle Obama isn’t in the mass-food-production business – she simply has chosen to use an organic approach for the benefit of her own kids and those who come to learn the lessons of nature and nurture that gardens have to offer. So, I say to Ambassadors McCarvel and Braun: you do your thing and Michelle (and I) will do ours. After all, “organic” is just another word for freedom.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Woman Thing

For me, it was all about the ladies a couple of weekends ago. Two events and one article got me thinking about the evolving leadership role of women – who we are as leaders and why there aren’t more of us.

On Friday I attended a daylong session of the annual W@M! Conference. W@M! stands for “Women, Action and the Media” and it was indeed a shout-out to women activists, journalists and garden-variety feminists who came together at MIT’s Stata Center (the new building by Frank Gehry that looks like the fantasy of a demented child) to talk about how to promote progressive ideas and ideals and get more women’s voices into the mainstream.

On Sunday night I attended the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s 100 Club dinner. This 50th anniversary of the 100 Club – somebody quipped that the name came about because when the event began it was doubtful that 100 Democrats could be found in the entire state – was a celebration of firsts: the first woman US Senator, Jean Shaheen (who had been the state’s first female governor); the first female US Representative, Carol Shea-Porter; the first women to serve as State Senate President and House Speaker, Sylvia Larsen and Terie Norelli respectively; and the first time in history the state chose a woman to stand as the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, a surprising article I had just read in preparation for yet another gathering of prominent women occupied my thoughts. “Women and the Vision Thing,” by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru, published in the January 2009 edition of the Harvard Business Review, examines the questions: Why don’t more women reach the top of their professions? What’s holding us back?

At first glance it would seem that nothing is. After all, according to a survey quoted in the article, women tend to score higher marks than men in just about every leadership component: energizing, designing and aligning, rewarding and feedback, team building, outside orientation, tenacity, and emotional intelligence (page 5).

The problem is what George H.W. Bush famously referred to as “the vision thing.” Rightly or not, women are perceived as being less effective than men in key components of the critical skill of visioning, which includes the ability to perceive opportunities and threats and inspire constituents to follow their lead. When circumstances are uncertain, women are less trusted than men to devise successful strategies and manage risk.

Ibarra and Obodaru offer some explanation for this startling disconnect. Women who work in collaboration might simply not get credit for the vision they engender. Also, women tend to value grounded-ness and action based on concrete data while men are more willing to portray a rosy future strong in optimism but perhaps weak on the particulars. The authors note the difference in the styles of candidates Obama and Clinton: his charismatic but somewhat vague vision compared with her practical, if unexciting, focus on policy and experience. Furthermore, women don’t entirely trust the vision thing when it seems to be more style than substance.

The article concludes by urging the aspiring woman leader to get up on her high horse and down with the vision thing. Obviously society needs it, wants it, and responds to it. But I came away from the article, from W@M! and the 100 Club, with another reaction.

While I want women to aspire to leadership roles in business, politics and as opinion-makers, I don’t want us to give up our peculiar form of integrity – centered, specific, collaborative – in order to be more like the men who currently occupy those seats of power. To say that women aren’t visionary is simply to fail to see how we are. “One man—one dream” might be compelling but the strength of women (one of many) is that we understand the power of the collective vision, and more often than not, we know how to get there. Perhaps what needs to change is our basic understanding of vision: to learn to be inspired by what’s inherent in the woman thing.