What I Learned about Leadership from a Bunch of Cheeseheads

It’s simple; it’s not simplistic. You already know it, but you can’t bullet point it.

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Before I landed in my current role, as the director of a writing program at a state university in northern Wisconsin, I bounced around the country working jobs to which I was variably committed depending upon how much I cared about the particular job and how entrenched I was at the time in parenting.

During those years, I paid close attention to my bosses, just in case. I didn’t ever really expect to be anyone’s boss, but life can surprise you.

I worked in a mostly-clerical role at a trailer factory in northern Indiana, as an architectural draftsperson in Denver, Colorado, as a public library designer in suburban Ohio, and, just before I started professoring, I taught high school in a woefully under-resourced high school in a godforsaken rural town.

During those years I had the fun-but-disorganized boss, the misogynistic boss, the even-tempered and consistently effectual boss, the temperamental genius boss, and one boss whom I’m almost certain is a verifiable sociopath.

I’ve also read a lot — a lot — of books on leadership. I’ve learned about leaning in and getting to yes and eating frogs. I know exactly how to react when someone moves my cheese.

But it wasn’t until I took on a leadership role in the land of cheese that I really learned how to lead. It was here, in this region of beer-swilling, dairy-farming, church-going viking descendants that I was introduced to a gentle midwestern ethos that, completely unintentionally, offered a leadership model that transcends trends and actually works.

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It’s simple, but it’s not simplistic. You already know it, but you can’t bullet point it.

The model is, for one thing, unarticulated. You’re not going to find any sort of Lutheran Guide to Taking Over the World that will promise to revolutionize your morning routine and catapult you to power. One reason for this is that most of the people here already get up and get to work early, because they have to, because there’s work to be done. Rising at 5 am to do yoga and drink Bulletproof coffee are the options of privilege; rising at 5 am to punch the clock is a mandate of survival.

And the quest for power — it doesn’t seem to be much of a thing here. The lack may be traced to ancestral tendencies toward Scandinavian modesty, a generational heritage that is sharply apparent even in my Millennial students, who are quick to support and affirm each other in class discussions, but reluctant to claim or even seek any sort of individual recognition of success.

To make this all more concrete, some comparisons:

I’ve worked in corporations where it was cool and impressive to pull all-nighters. In Denver, we regularly worked through the night, ordering pizza on the company’s tab and catching Z’s in catnaps on the floor in front of the plate-glass windows that framed the Rockies. Our mountain bikes lined the hallways of the office, because we were not only super-productive but super fit.

Here, it’s weird to even e-mail on the weekends.

This took some getting used to, and I’m ashamed to say it took me a few weeks to figure out that writing to my team at 5 am or 11 pm is not really okay. The subtext of such an email is, Look at me. Look how hard I work. I’m still working after you’ve gone to bed and/or before you wake up. The sub-subtext of such an e-mail is, I expect the same from you.

I didn’t and don’t, but I now realize that I may have unintentionally sent that message. Because here’s the truth: I don’t send middle-of-the-night e-mails because I’m a workaholic; I send them because I tend to be disorganized and undisciplined.

My colleagues here — hell, even most of my students here — don’t need to engage in showy displays of workaholism because they actually know how to get shit done; and they get it done during the workday.

They have other responsibilities and priorities outside of work, and they know that sacrificing family, friends, what-have-you at the alter of work is not any sort of professional heroism; on the contrary, it’s irresponsible.

They don’t do less work than people who appear to be working all the time; they just do it with a lot less drama.

They don’t gossip. At all. This seems to free up a lot of time to, you know, work.

They don’t bail. Bailing has become an enormous problem, in my opinion, and is a topic for another story, but bailing around here is reserved for hay.

They don’t showboat (see above).

They *actually* listen — to everyone. And I don’t mean the kind of cultivated, “reflective listening” crap that makes a point of saying “I hear what you are saying, and I can prove it”; I mean they listen to each other regardless of role, position, or potential for personal gain. They listen to each other because it is polite to do so, and then they proceed in a way that substantiates the listening.

They mostly disregard the hierarchy. There are a few people in high positions in my institution — mostly transplants from other places — that perpetuate the stereotype of the power monger executive, but for the most part there exists a spirit of egalitarianism here in which inclusiveness is the natural default rather than a nod to current political fashion. The student assistants who work in my department are not only relied upon to help us Gen Xers work our technology; they are frequently consulted in matters of policy making and asked to weigh in on sticky decisions requiring critical insight. It’s not uncommon to hear a faculty member gently remind people in the boardroom to seek the opinion (and actually heed it) of students and university staff members.

They love potlucks. I haven’t totally cracked this one, but it seems to suggest something about prioritizing community, sharing what you have, and the value of making things from scratch, which takes longer and is better.

They’re honest. In other places I’ve taught, my professor colleagues and I made constant references to the fall-semester “dead grandma” phenomenon that serves as the excuse for everything from missing an essay deadline to missing entire weeks of class. I’ve had some students who seem to lose grandmas the same way and at the same rate that they lose pencils. I am pretty sure my students here never tell dead-grandma lies. For one thing, they don’t lie; for another, they super-love their grandmas.

I arrived here so jaded by previous jobs that for the first 4 weeks of the semester, I walked around thinking, “What’s their game?” about my students and my colleagues. The realization that they are just genuinely kind, honest, and respectful first shocked and then shamed me. Why had I assumed otherwise?

The folks here are almost unfailingly polite. One of my students recently told me that “Wisconsin is like its own country. We wave to everyone, everywhere. And we apologize whenever we do even the littlest thing wrong. Like, if I drop my fork on the floor, I apologize to it.” She hesitated for a second then. “And, um, we don’t say ‘oops.’ We say ‘Ope!,’ like that,” she demonstrated animatedly. “You can say ‘Ope’ for almost anything.”

There are many things in my past which I’d like to “Ope,” but one of them is thinking that the magic of effective leadership could be found in a seminar, a book, or a bulleted list on Forbes.com.

Turns out the big “secrets” are good manners, decency, humility, and grace. And that it’s more important to know when to say “thank you” than to know when to say “scalable.” It’s not being able to squeeze more productivity out of your workers; it’s being able to organize the potluck yourself.

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To be clear, this is not a perfect place. The politics tend to run toward the bloodiest and most brutal shades of red. There are not nearly enough women in positions of power at local or state levels. It’s not a great region for animal rights. True diversity is probably decades if not centuries into the future.

But there’s some sort of seed, and it’s planted deep in this fertile soil along with the heirloom tomatoes and the freakishly large root vegetables. The wisdom it contains is not new or package-able or quick. Its cultivation requires patience, steadfastness, and balance, which, actually, are the qualities that every new “how to succeed in leadership” book eventually lands on anyway.

Written by

English professor and humor writer based in Green Bay. McSweeney’s, Points in Case, HuffPost, Slackjaw, Little Old Lady Comedy, Human Parts, others.

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