Life lessons from Mamie Parker

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By Dan Wyant

The Stewardship Network (TSN) held its annual conference recently, and Mamie Parker was among keynote speakers. A biologist who spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Parker rose to the rank of chief of staff at FWS headquarters, the first Black American to do so. Over the years she has received a slew of awards and recognition for her conservation work and efforts to advance diversity and opportunities for minority students in the field.

Now retired, Parker remains active as an executive coach, facilitator and public speaker. Her message to TSN members revolved around networking with passion, inspiration and excellence (PIE). I particularly liked her insights about developing leadership skills to work with difficult people — especially difficult bosses.

Some other foundation team members also attended TSN’s virtual conference, and I touched base with Mike McCuistion, our vice president of physical resources, and Jarod Reibel, our new conservation land stewardship manager, to see what resonated with them from Parker’s speech. Here are some of our collective takeaways:

Avoid criticizing, complaining, negatively competing and negatively comparing — Parker admitted to committing four of Stephen Covey’s “emotional cancers” early in her career, only to her detriment. After recognizing that a positive attitude makes a huge difference, she was far more effective, able to improve relationships and enjoy her work.

Know your crazy— Think about why a boss or individual is driving you crazy. Why do you react the way you do? We all have our own hot buttons and knowing what your particular triggers are can help you manage how easily other people can push them. “As Parker moved on, she realized it wasn’t just the boss. She came to the realization that she lacked the proper skill set to deal with difficult people and identified what she needed to work on herself,” Jarod says. “The fact that it’s not always about what a boss is doing, but how you address it, is a really good thing to be aware of.”

Get mad, and then get over it — Referring to this Collin Powell quote, Parker pointed out that it’s OK to get upset, but don’t get stuck in an emotional rut. For me, this falls into the category of “unpacking your bag.” Irritating things happen each day, and it’s important to talk about them. Granted, you can’t always have that conversation with the source of the irritation, but you can discuss it with someone you trust. Doing so enables you to effectively deal with your emotions and move on.

Life can be hard, but life is long — I initially interpreted this as being about sticking it out… that you can get away from a difficult boss or an irritating job situation by quitting. But then what are you going to do? Yet Mike saw it in a different light: Things can go wrong, but you have opportunities for do-overs, opportunities to make things right.

Parker also engaged the audience by having us sing “Row, row, row your boat,” and pointing out the simple children’s song is layered with multiple messages. Among them is the importance of persistence, to make sure you’re rowing your own boat (not someone else’s), to keep moving forward and to enjoy the journey.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about Parker’s message was its universality. Although she was addressing an audience of conservation professionals and students, her insights are applicable to individuals in any industry or organization. Key to her recipe for PIE (passion, inspiration and excellence) are positivity, persistence and self-awareness —  ingredients to keep on hand at all times.

Published 2/08/2021

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.