There is an old saying that goes “a good guest always leaves the woodpile a little higher than he finds it.” Whenever we serve in a leadership position big or small, we have the opportunity to “leave the woodpile a little higher.” Leaders with this attitude stand on the shoulders of those who came before them and are intentional about making their contributions. They are focused on the needs of the organization and not their own. These type leaders inspire those around them and realize that they have the opportunity to model servant leadership for the future leaders who will one day take their place. It is always disappointing to see people who cling to leadership roles when it is time to move on. In contrast, there are leaders like Tony LaRussa, manager of the World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals, who decided to retire at the top.
Kit Barksdale, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish of Mississippi, continues to create a legacy of leadership by example. A Jackson native, her late father was former Jackson Mayor Russell Davis. She noted that he was her original mentor on leadership, and that he taught her to respect the individual. Barksdale also shared that her father believed that we are all charged with “leaving the world, our community, and even our campsite a better place.” Early on, she was a teacher, then became a craftsman who ran a studio producing linens and silk banners. Barksdale was part of the original group led by Theo Inman and Dan Overly who formed the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. In 1994, she went to work with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks where she brought programs to Mississippi such as “Becoming an Outdoor Woman,” the “Mississippi Outdoor Viewing Guide” and “Trailblazers,” an outdoor program for adults with developmental disabilities.
Barksdale’s leadership roles have also included serving as director of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi and executive director of The Mustard Seed, a community for adults with developmental disabilities. In October of 2011, Make-A-Wish of Mississippi, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, named Barksdale as president and CEO. Despite the challenging economic conditions, the Mississippi Chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation had a record number of wishes granted (124) and record fundraising (over $1.2 million) during their last fiscal year.
A proven and passionate leader, Barksdale is a 15-year survivor of breast cancer. She leads with conviction and believes in encouraging her team to “be their best, not perfect, but best under the circumstances.” She knows that it is better to strive for excellence than perfection. She also emphasized that leaders have to be true to their word. We build trust being straightforward on both the little things and the big things. We all make promises every day to our colleagues in the business world. Do we live up to our word or leave a string of broken promises?
Barksdale also knows that real leadership begins with self-leadership. Her philosophy is “if you want to be honored, be honorable. If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy.” Unfortunately, leaders can’t get away for long with the attitude “do what I say, not what I do.” Leading ourselves is often the greatest challenge. This requires us to look in the mirror and be honest. We have to effectuate positive change in our lives and be continually growing. As leadership guru John Maxwell noted, “Leading yourself well means that you hold yourself to a higher standard of accountability.” In the end, leaders who can’t lead themselves really aren’t worth following.
Mississippi has many for profit and non-profit entities that contribute significantly to the overall good of our community. Kit Barksdale and others like her have chosen to “leave the woodpile a little higher” by making a difference in and through the organizations they lead. This mindset is one that we need to make sure that we continue to foster in tomorrow’s leaders to make our state the best it can be.