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My Ethos of Leadership


Posted on July 6, 2018 by Maria Gallo.

Last month, I was invited to give a welcoming address to the Cultivating Change Summit at a reception held in The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, Iowa. The World Food Prize is awarded to those whose work has contributed in meaningful ways to global food security. A brainchild of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, The World Food Prize is intended to honor those who are role models to us all. With that inspiration, I felt it was fitting to share with the attendees, many of whom were graduate students, my philosophy regarding leadership. I think it is equally important to share my personal take on leadership with our DelVal family as we all strive to be leaders and transform our world.

I believe it is important for those in positions of leadership to model the behavior they are seeking. Hard work and talent are a part of why you achieve success, but so, too, is the generous mentorship of others. We have a duty and an obligation to pay that forward. 

Over the course of my career, I have come to develop a personal ethos of leadership. Individually, none of the points to follow are groundbreaking. But taken together, I believe they have helped me to grow professionally and personally, fostered inclusivity among my own teams, and prepared me well for the challenges both seen and hidden that we all face.

First, participate. Such a simple concept, but one we often forget. I have realized over the years that my own move into leadership was based on my willingness to make suggestions and challenge assumptions. So I would encourage you to do the same. There is a great deal of value in participation; indeed, without it, leadership is a nearly unreachable goal. Volunteer. Apply. Mentor. Share. Question. Your peers need it, and your institution needs it. Never stop. 

Yes, there is some risk in this, which is why my next tip is to be brave. How many times have decisions been made to act – or not to act – out of fear? Have those decisions ever had long-lasting, meaningful, beneficial consequences? I would argue no. This is not to say that we don’t feel fear – of course we do. But good leaders acknowledge it and act in spite of it, not because of it. As a leader, you model the kind of decision making you want your organization to practice. Courage and fear are both contagious – which would you rather influence your team?

Along those lines, build good teams. Your job as a leader, frankly, is not to do the work. It is to find the right people to do the right jobs, and then to create the environment in which they will thrive. This is no easy thing, I recognize. Unless you’re starting your organization from scratch, you inherit a team. You owe it to yourself and your organization to determine whether they are the ones who can help you implement your vision. Remember, that’s your job – that’s why you were given the leadership role in the first place.

So you need to figure out: Will your team challenge you? Can you learn from them? Do their values align with yours? Will they move forward in unity once decisions are made?

Do not be afraid to build your team – your team – and do not be afraid to turn them loose. Create an inclusive environment in which they feel safe to share ideas and aspirations, and watch what happens. As I said, bravery is contagious – if you lead bravely, your team will follow bravely … and lead their teams the same way.

Next, realize that leadership does not mean perfection. Accept that you will make mistakes, and so will your team – everyone does, right? One of the differences between bad leaders and good leaders is that the good ones learn from their mistakes. Besides, perfection is an unattainable goal. Pursuing it can paralyze you from making decisions and then acting on them. And a paralyzed organization is a doomed one. By all means, aim for perfection, but don’t think for a minute that if you don’t reach it, you’ve failed. Because you won’t … and you haven’t.

Follow your passion – it’s advice we read and hear all the time. Our mistake is in interpreting that far too narrowly, so that if we don’t hit that one specific micro-goal, we may feel like failures.

No, keep the big picture right in front of you. I am an agronomist and a plant molecular biologist. Now, I have not won the Nobel Prize or the World Food Prize, but I have contributed to the advancement of my disciplines – my passion – through teaching, research, and, yes, leadership. It’s no accident that I landed at a university with strong, agricultural and life sciences programs – it is here that I can instill my passion in the next generation of agronomists, conservationists, biologists, and veterinarians … as well as entrepreneurs, psychologists, teachers, writers, businesspeople, and leaders. 

All of what I have shared up to now leads to an overarching truism of great leadership:


To be your authentic, true self is to model strength through vulnerability and compassion. It is to inspire teamwork and innovation through a willingness to share credit and reward risk. It is to demonstrate that success is based in our flawed humanity, not unreachable perfection. It is to show your peers, your colleagues, and your team that leaders look, think, feel, decide, and act differently – and that this is not only acceptable, but preferable.

In summary:

Participate. Be Brave. Build Your Team. Avoid Perfection Paralysis. Pursue Your Passion. And Be Your Authentic, True Self.