From Piggly Wiggly to agriculture commissioner
by Martin Willoughby
Published: May 20,2012
Cindy Hyde-Smith made history as the first woman in the United States to be elected as Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce. She succeeded longtime Commissioner, Dr. Lester Spell, Jr., who did not seek re-election for a fifth term in office. Her election followed a 12-year career as a Mississippi State Senator for District 39 where she served as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee for 8 years. She has a reputation for being a very hard worker who expects a lot of herself and those around her. Growing up in Monticello, Hyde-Smith’s father was in the trucking business, and her mother was a hairdresser who is still going strong in her business at age 74. Her parents taught her the value of hard work, and Hyde-Smith spent many hours helping in her dad’s business. She laughingly shared, “I have probably changed more oil filters than anyone at the Capitol!”
Hyde-Smith also worked at the local Piggly Wiggly as a cashier when she was in school. She credits her five years under the mentorship of owner Frank Malta as having a big impact on her leadership style. She shared examples of how her boss would always treat people with kindness and respect. Whether helping a customer who could not pay for groceries or firing people compassionately, Malta had a big impact on the young and impressionable Hyde-Smith. A graduate of Copiah-Lincoln Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi, she went on to have a very successful career in government relations in Washington D.C. before marrying her husband Mike and returning to Mississippi to continue his family’s legacy of cattle farming. Today, Hyde-Smith and her family reside in Brookhaven where they raise beef cattle and are partners in Lincoln County Livestock, the local stockyard auction market in Brookhaven, which has held a live cattle auction every Tuesday since 1942.
After visiting with her, I learned how passionate Hyde-Smith is about Mississippi and agriculture. She was quick to point out the important role that farmers play in our country and that 2% of our population produces the food for the other 98% of us. Her leadership philosophy is to help others elevate. She seeks to make her actions inspire others to dream more, achieve more, and reach for their goals. Hyde-Smith believes that you have to “capitalize on people’s attributes and help them soar.” She also wisely noted that, “Unless you are a good follower yourself, it is very difficult to be a great leader.” This is a subtle but very important point to consider when evaluating people for leadership positions. We also discussed that in order to be an effective leader you have to have the respect of your team. While she admits that her standards are high, it is obvious that her standards for herself are even higher.
One of the downfalls of many leaders is hubris. Hyde-Smith’s advice for future leaders is to be very wary of arrogance. She encourages them to pray for humility and wisdom. When egos get in the way, it is hard to accomplish much of importance. She recognizes that leaders have to constantly be on guard to avoid letting arrogance creep in. While she has much she could be proud about, Hyde-Smith is humbly focused on the task at hand for her department and its over 185 employees. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce plays an important role in this state and impacts our daily lives in more ways than we typically realize. The next time you are at the gas pumps, take note of what department inspects the pumps to make sure they we are getting our money’s worth. In today’s world of high gas prices, we need to make sure we get every penny’s worth. I appreciate hard working leaders like Hyde-Smith who are making our state the best it can be.
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