Recently I had the opportunity to visit a ranch, owned by a friend here in Oklahoma, during their spring branding. I was fascinated as I watched the cowboys (and girls) work the cattle much the way it has been done for decades. By the time I arrived, the cowboys had already rounded up the calves and cows and then culled (separated) the calves from their mothers. This is stressful for both the cows and the calves, so there was a significant amount of bawling going on.
One by one, the cowboys roped a calf by one or both of its back legs and then pulled it backwards to where the others were waiting to do the tagging, vaccinating, branding and castrating (for the little boy calves.) They worked efficiently and with a coordination that spoke to years of practice and decades of history, even though some of the cowboys were less than a decade old. It was fascinating to watch.
The ranch encompasses 12,000 acres which is about 20 square miles (roughly the size of the island of Manhattan.) It is stunningly beautiful. There are miles of Bluestem grass, punctuated by tree-lined creeks and ravines. The fence lines running away from us literally disappeared into the sea of grass and trees. In the foreground of this scene were many of the 2,800 head of cattle whose home is the ranch, being handled by real cowboys on working horses. It was very much like being in a movie about the Wild West. It felt like being part of something very old.
Yet, there was one thing that made it difficult to completely lose myself in this image. In every direction I looked, I could see windmills for generating electricity. The owners of the ranch had recently signed a deal to lease locations for these windmills and the construction was underway all across the ranch. My friend told me it was a difficult decision to forever alter the landscape of their heritage, but they believed that diversification would allow them to continue raising cattle using the people, planet, profit model of sustainability they practice in their business.
It is very hard to change. It is especially difficult to change long standing traditions, structures, and habits. This resistance to change causes us to filter information and evidence in a way that favors us maintaining the status quo. This is a form of cognitive bias called “Confirmation Bias.” This is where we believe what we want to believe by favoring information that confirms preexisting beliefs or preconceptions. This results in looking for solutions that confirm our beliefs rather than challenging them, making us closed to new possibilities.
Being on the ranch made me think of the movie “Giant.” In the film, Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. (played by Rock Hudson) and his wife Leslie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) are trying to preserve their heritage and way of life on their ranch called “Reata.” I think they say the ranch is 595,000 acres in the movie, but it was filmed on a 35,000 acre ranch near Marfa, TX. The movie is about greed, racism, and family dynamics, but it is also about progress and the resistance to change.
During the story, oil is discovered on neighboring properties, but Bick is reluctant to allow drilling on his land for fear it will change the way they live and thereby destroy their heritage. As it turns out, the most dangerous things threatening their way of life are attacking from within, not from the outside. In the end, some things change and some don’t. Bick drills wells and puts in a swimming pool, but the family and the Reata Way are maintained.
As leaders facing the future, (and we are always facing the future, whether we will open our eyes to it or not), it is critical that we understand what is missional and what is strategic. Missional things should not change easily or often. Strategy can change every day if it needs to. What gets us into trouble quickly is when we think something is strategy, when it is actually missional. Likewise, we stumble when we believe something is missional and we hold it way too long, when it is truly just strategy.
It is critical that we understand what is mission, and what is strategy. At Kimray, our core values define the things we will not change: honoring the Lord, strengthening the family, being responsible stewards and maintaining our good name. You may notice there is nothing in there about our product, our location, or even our business. What we make, how we make it, and where we make it are strategies and can change. How we treat people, how we behave in the community, and who we honor and follow is missional and should not change easily, if ever.
If my ranch owner friend had mistaken strategy for mission, she might have missed the opportunity to develop another business within the space and resources she already had. That missed opportunity could have led to the loss of their entire way of life. Instead, she looked toward the future and chose a strategy that would enable her to continue doing the things that are missional for her family for many years to come.
The oil collapse combined with the COVID-19 crisis have created the necessity for many leaders to revisit their strategies and make changes in order to survive. This is an opportunity that is always before us, but crisis makes it more apparent. Those who dislodge their confirmation bias and find strategy solutions will continue to grow. Those who mistake their current strategy for a mission will not.
I am contemplating this reality personally, as well as in my role as an organizational leader. As Neil Young once said, “Rust never sleeps.” The future is always moving and challenging us. I must also continuously challenge my strategies without giving up my core values. We must all clearly define what our core values are, and then be open to changing everything else. I keep hearing that things will never be the same again. That’s somewhat funny, because it is always true. Tomorrow will be different from today. The speed at which things change can vary, but change is inevitable and constant.
Every day, I want to wake up ready to challenge what I did yesterday in light of the new information that arrives with the dawn. I want to be slow to change who I am, but quick to change what I do. Whether it is “fans for cows” as my friend puts it, or new products and new directions, as a leader I want to embrace change, not as a necessary evil, but as a welcome opportunity. Like those cowboys, I want to be rounding up cattle in the shadow of the latest innovations. Keeping what’s valuable while seizing the opportunity of the future is what great leaders do, and it is the Kimray Way.
I hope you take a moment today to think about the men and women who lost their lives defending the freedom we all hold dear. To those who have or are presently serving we say “Thank you!” for putting yourself between us and those who would take our freedom from us. May God bless you and keep you.