In America, one of our most revered leaders is founding father George Washington. Because of his role as a military leader and first President, he has iconic status in our culture. What is particularly interesting about Washington as a leader is that he knew, like all of us, that he was not perfect. In his day, he had many critics, and his writing reveals that he knew he did not always have all of the answers. Washington noted in a letter to a friend, “Why should I expect to be exempt from censure, the unfailing lot of an elected station? My Heart tells me it has been my unremitted aim to do the best circumstances would permit; yet, I may have been very often mistaken in my judgment of the means, and may, in many instances, deserve the imputation of error.” Strong leaders have the courage to listen to others and seek input from their team. They don’t surround themselves with “yes” people. They surround themselves with “A” players and want strong people in leadership roles in their organizations.
I recently visited with Parke Pepper, who serves as executive director of The Baddour Center in Senatobia. For those not familiar with The Baddour Center, it is a comprehensive residential community founded in 1978 for adults with mild and moderate intellectual disabilities. It was founded with a generous bequest by Paul Baddour and with the help of the United Methodist Church. Today, it serves over 155 residents from 25 states and has been a leading model for such a community in the country. Interestingly, the Center does not rely on governmental dollars and so is completely self-funded through tuition, grants, and donations. Pepper leads the staff of 125 employees in serving the needs of this community. Pepper grew up in Magee, Mississippi on a farm and was a dual sport athlete at Millsaps College playing football and baseball. Upon graduation, he worked in banking before having a chance meeting with the clinical director at Millcreek, a behavioral health and educational service facility in Magee. He then shifted from banking to a new career in working with people with disabilities. He went on to serve in leadership roles with the State of Tennessee at the Arlington Development Center and Stones River Center prior to joining the The Baddour Center in 2004.
As a competitive athlete and focused leader, Pepper certainly has a “can do” attitude and leads with passion and strength. He believes in the value of hard work and giving projects your all. However, his leadership style is balanced with a servant’s heart who understands the value of people and relationships. He shared that, “My grandfather had a big influence in teaching me the value of getting to know people. He always made people feel that they were important to him, and he valued their input.” Pepper had the candor to share that he knows just because he is the leader does not mean that he has all of the answers. He has the courage to admit when he does not have the answer. He has surrounded himself with smart and talented leaders in his organization and they know that he values them and their feedback. As a leader, Pepper focuses on how to manage the morale and culture of his organization. He also concentrates on how to make sure that his team is working well together to accomplish the goals of the organization.
Leaders like Pepper are examples of how you can lead with both strength and humility. To me there is nothing worse than serving in an organization when the leader has the hubris to think he or she has all of the answers. I find that they ultimately have a hard time keeping a strong team because talented people won’t work indefinitely in such a stifling environment. Pepper and his team have built an organization that is recognized for its success around the country, and we as Mississippians should be proud of their accomplishments. Hopefully, we can all learn to lead better with courage and conviction, but also not forget our own fallibility and value the input of our teammates.
Up Close With … Parke Pepper
Title: Executive Director, The Baddour Center
Favorite Books: Spiritual Leadership (Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby); I also enjoy Patrick Lencioni’s books on building great teams
First Job: “I had many jobs around the family farm where I grew up.”
Proudest Moment as a Leader: My proudest moments are always seeing others achieve their goals and advance in their careers.
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