From Adversaries to Allies

It’s all about relationships.

Relationships are at the core for the transformative leadership American Leadership Forum hopes to create. Why is that the case?

When two or more people with shared commitment to their community develop a strong personal relationship, they become a building block of a sound leadership network. Here’s a story that exemplifies that perfectly.

Joe Whitworth and Dan Keppen took an existing relationship that might be called “polite adversaries” to a very different level during their year together in the Oregon Chapter of the American Leadership Forum.

Joe Whitworth: Agriculture and conservation are the two most natural allies that cannot speak each other’s language—and precious few translators exist. Because I grew up bucking hay in the Midwest and later became the head of the conservation group that listed the first Pacific Salmon under the Endangered Species Act, I see both sides. While I know deeply that landowners do not wake up in the morning looking to do environmental harm, I also know that financial realities drive how they manage their operation. So the value I bring to this field is in a kind of translation. Thing is, though, one translator needs another to create and sustain breakthroughs. My ALF experience provided the setting for that relationship to be built.

Dan Keppen: Joe and I met in 2003, when I was executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. The issue that brought us together was the same that keeps us both in business: water.

Joe: In particularly dry years, with increased pressure on water supplies, farmers predictably dug in on one side, and the “greens” dug in on the other. There was no real dialogue. There were power politics, shout-downs, and litigation. Dan and I found ourselves on panels speaking about our respective interests in the basin. We struck up a relationship built on respect and always talked about finding a way to navigate through the needlessly explosive minefield of agriculture versus conservation, but we never followed through. Whether we were too busy, too far away, or the move was too progressive for our constituencies—we never made it happen. Bottom line is that he and I always knew that our constituencies could easily agree on 70 percent of most issues, but focused on the 30 percent that separated them. And focusing on the disagreements created fear and mistrust.

Dan: So five years later Joe and I end up in ALF together. There, our professional relationship blossomed into one of friendship, in large part due to the camaraderie of the ALF process. Joe is an accomplished outdoorsman, and I remember having to eat humble pie several times when forced to sheepishly approach him for advice on how to tie knots for our rock-climbing exercise in the Columbia River Gorge. He always helped, but added some good-natured ribbing to let me know where I stood. I pulled a good one on him later, though, when the class came together in a circle. The facilitator whispered a phrase to one of our classmates which we were instructed to pass around the circle from classmate to classmate. By the time the message made it around—with a little help from yours truly—it had morphed from “Trouble is brewing, my friend,” to “Joe Whitworth likes barnyard animals.” From then on our classmates referred to him as “Barnyard Joe.”

Joe: ALF forced us together each month for more than a year in a setting apart from our professional roles and allowed us to expand our relationship into a durable friendship. He gained a good deal of admiration from me through his open approach in dealing with the death of his father, a marital change, and the discovery and correction of a brain aneurysm. He constantly tried to make sense of it and make good use of the learning. His earnestness more than made up for his eighth-grade sense of humor.

Dan: As our ALF friendship grew, so did our mutual trust and respect. Joe and I both recognized that the best opportunities to improve trout habitat were on private lands. For groups like Oregon Trout to maximize habitat potential, private landowners like ranchers need to participate. Those ranchers are going to be much more inclined to participate if they get something in return—maybe another cash flow stream, or maybe environmental credits.

Joe: Our mutual trust gave us a willingness to take risks in bringing the new ideas to the table and focusing on those issues where we agree. We are together making folks first uncomfortable and then comfortable in new territory, focusing on forward solutions rather than more of the same.

Dan: ALF gave me a strong belief that leaders should always be ready to stand up for other leaders. Our two organizations work cooperatively in a variety of political and public forums. We recently co-wrote a guest opinion for The Oregonian that focused on the positive aspects of farmer-conservationist partnerships.

Joe: We have some heavy lifts in front of us. Agriculture is at once the most ecologically destructive and humanly critical enterprise on Earth. In the next forty years, we will need to grow as much food as we have in all human history, without destroying the biosphere’s capacity to do it thereafter. We are not on track to do that. We can get there, but not through the old conversations and the old ways. Through the new ones. And for that work, I now have an ally to help me rebalance the scales.

Dan: The “farmers vs. fish” dynamic that very likely could have defined our relationship has instead turned into something closer to “farmers for fish.” The listening, collaboration, and networking that is such a part of the ALF experience definitely played a large part in the strong personal and professional relationship I have to this day with “Barnyard Joe” Whitworth.