Leadership Lessons from an Old Cowboy

Influence & Impact

“Engage, and Be Engaged”

Morning chores began at 5:30 and ‘supper’ was never eaten until the workday was finished, usually sometime after 9:00 p.m. As a scrawny kid on a little farm in Idaho I was very familiar with large animals and large appetites, for both the critters and myself.

My siblings and I logged endless hours pulling weeds and hauling hay. We were familiar with the phrases “children should be seen and not heard,” and “children are to speak only when spoken to.” This ‘old school’ farm life provided many valuable life skills, but it wasn’t always fun.

Thank goodness for Theo Schvaneveldt.  

From a mile off we could see when he was headed our way. The dust plumes on county roads signal the arrival of any visitor long before they reach the barnyard. Mr. Schvaneveldt’s Ford truck and fifth-wheel livestock trailer made much more dust than most. My dad’s life-long friend was coming to buy, sell, or trade cattle. His arrival triggered the extra work of sorting cattle on foot, adding to the already-full workday. No matter, to see his cattle-hauling rig backing up to the gate perked a little smile on my tanned-brown farm boy face.

You see, as busy as we all were, Theo always had time to smile and greet me by name.

Somehow he always knew what was going on in life, i.e., “Your football team sure is doing well. You’ve won every game this season. How’s your knee doing after that hit last Friday?”

Including me in the dialogue, he’d pull the toothpick from his mouth and lean on the top rail of the fence asking something like, “You fellers’ sure have good cattle. Which one do you think is best and how come?” And then he would listen. And after hearing me, he would validate my opinion.

Then came the moment of influence. He would share his insight and expertise about cattle with me, involving me in the negotiation as if some of the cattle were actually mine. And, amazingly, somehow Theo always managed to select the one animal I had identified as best, as the highest priced critter in the bunch. I didn’t exactly realize it then, but his way of being toward me facilitated my desire to do everything necessary to produce the best cattle possible. Without this, the cattle may have been viewed as just another stinky chore. My dad said Theo was just spoiling me. By engaging me, Theo sparked a desire within me to be engaged in the mission and vision of my parents’ farm.

Theo’s influence was felt all across Idaho. Though born in a little shack in Cedarville during the Great Depression, he was elected, often unanimously, as a school board member, a county commissioner, and as mayor. His influence for good also included serving as a lay leader in his local worship congregation and many other leadership roles that I didn’t know about. His way of engaging others built connection, enabled the development of healthy mindset, and established a continuity of vision.

Back then I wondered why everyone likes Theo; they admire, respect and appreciate him. Today I can see that it’s because he would engage with everyone, and then, here’s the key: He would listen. He was such a good listener that sometimes it would take a second or two after the other person finished speaking before Theo would respond. And, not surprisingly, his comments were always considerate of what the other person had said, even when he disagreed.

Years later, I would buy, sell and trade cattle with Theo. It was great to do business with him. Though he had a cell phone, it was sometimes difficult to contact him because he never carried it with him. He said texting and ‘so-called smart phones’ get in the way of actual communication “with the feller’ right in front of me.”

Yup. Theo preferred to ‘Engage, and Be Engaged.’