Country music singer Aaron Tippin captured a key element of leadership in his popular song, “You’ve Got to Stand for Something.” The chorus of the song repeats the often quoted phrase, “You’ve got to stand for something or you will fall for anything.” Knowing who you are and what you stand for is a critical element of leadership. Stephen Covey, bestselling author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” describes this as finding your “voice” and helping other people find theirs. Covey believes that today’s knowledge worker needs a different kind of leader and in his book “The Eighth Habit,” he makes the case that leaders who find their voice and inspire others to do the same unlock an organization’s potential because they “enable people to sense their individual innate worth and potential for greatness, and contribute their talents and passion – their voice – to accomplish the organization’s highest priorities in a principled way.”
For Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association (MRBA), knowing what you stand for is a key tenet in his leadership philosophy. Pepper earned his undergraduate degree from Mississippi State and a masters of science from Purdue University. He began his career working for the late Gov. Fordice as an executive advisor on agriculture, forestry, and environmental issues. His career has been focused on working with member driven organizations including Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi Poultry Association, and now with the MRBA. Pepper credits one of his professors, Dr. Jimmy Abraham, who taught him the importance of “caring for others and having passion for what you do.” Pepper also noted that Gov. Fordice’s brutal honesty when assessing a situation and integrity had a big impact on him.
As part of his principled leadership style, Pepper encourages his team “if you are wrong, admit it and learn from your mistake.” He knows how corrosive it is in an organization when we don’t take responsibility for our actions. One of the challenges in working in any organization, but particularly a member-driven organization, is aligning everyone’s interests. Pepper noted, “You must be able to motivate your group to pull in the same direction, to try and have your group see the big picture or common good of the whole organization.”
In his job at the MRBA, Pepper is leading an organization that serves as the primary advocate of road and bridge construction in Mississippi. He shared that, “Our main goal is promoting the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges throughout the state. Funds for this use are derived from a fuel user fee but passed down through both the federal congress and the state legislature. Therefore, much of our interest involves being politically active.” When you know what you stand for then you earn the trust of others and can serve as an effective advocate for your organization. Pepper has clearly found his “voice” and the members of the MRBA are well served because of the passion he brings to the job.
Standing on your convictions is easier said than done. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand alone and make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. However, when unselfish, servant-oriented leaders stand firm then they earn our respect and trust and are worthy of being followed. The easy path is trying to please everybody; however, leaders who “blow in the wind” may enjoy short-term popularity but rarely are effective leaders in the long term. I am always encouraged as I continue to find leaders like Pepper who know what they stand for and lead with passion and conviction — that is good for our state.