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People Power: Monumental leadership – Lessons from the Black Hills


By Robert Milligan


My wife and I spent a week in June visiting and learning about the Black Hills of South Dakota. To me the week was filled with examples of incredible leadership.


Mount Rushmore 

Where else would we start our leadership journey but at Mount Rushmore. Four remarkable leaders – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – are forever enshrined in stone. As we viewed the Presidents, the enormity of their leadership contributions to the freedom we cherish and the greatness  of our country permeated the atmosphere.

We studied the methods used from 1927-41 to complete the sculptures. The vision and leadership from Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, must have been incredible. We had the privilege of visiting with the lone surviving member of the crew who worked on the sculptures.

My most vivid leadership impression, however, came during the inspirational evening program and lighting ceremony. In the park ranger’s comments about each of the four presidents, she highlighted the often-forgotten fact that George Washington was a reluctant leader. After his Revolutionary War success, his plan and preference was to return to his family at their Mount Vernon plantation. Instead, he heeded the calling of his country to become our first President.

Leadership lesson: Many leaders reluctantly respond to the call of their followers and/or the draw of their vision. This is where many of you are today. You have never had a stated objective to become a great leader; however, in today’s turbulent world, you – the owner – must lead your business to fulfill the vision and success you and your family have for your dairy.


Wall Drug

Wall Drug is best known for the billboards  dotting the landscape for hundreds of miles. The first billboard we saw upon entering I-90 said “355 miles to Wall Drug.” The story behind Wall Drug reveals the incredible journey of a four-generation family business.

In 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead, a pharmacist, consummated their dream of owning their own drug store by purchasing Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., a very small town on the edge of the Badlands. As they struggled to find customers, they made a five-year commitment to the store. 

On a hot July day, as their five-year trial was nearing a disappointing end, Dorothy retired for a nap (since there were no customers). Instead of napping, she listened to the steady stream of cars rushing by on Route 16A (now I-90). The idea that is the hallmark of Wall Drug to this day – free ice water – was born. 

The next weekend Ted and a high school student posted signs along highway 16A. By the time they got back to the drugstore, a line had formed for free ice water – and to buy an ice cream cone or something else. By the next summer, Wall Drug had eight employees, and today serves up to 20,000 customers on a good summer day. It really is the “super store” of the South Dakota Badlands. Walking down the street to Wall Drug, we observed license plates from all over the country.

Leadership lesson: Great ideas and great strategies often emerge from adversity. In periods of adversity, it’s natural to become angry and depressed. It is also true that decision-making becomes more difficult when experiencing these emotions. Leaders – dairy  owners like yourself – must recognize these tendencies, but not let them keep you from continuing to search for new ideas and avenues to create a winning strategy.


Crazy Horse Memorial

Mount Rushmore is not the only stone carving in the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse Memorial, an even larger sculpture, honoring the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, is being sculpted a few miles away.

The Crazy Horse sculpture is the vision of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. The project began in 1948 with essentially no money and no government funding. The Memorial’s mission is to honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians.

Korczak’s parting words upon his death in 1982 were: “You must work on the mountain-but go slowly so you do it right.” His wife Ruth has continued leadership for the project, still without any government funding.

Seven of the Ziolkowski’s 10 children chose to continue pursuit of their parent’s vision, and now a third generation is involved. Our Road Scholar group leader commented that she did not expect to see completion of the sculpture in her lifetime as progress is steady but painstakingly slow.

Leadership lesson: Never, never underestimate the power of vision. I am a firm believer that most farm families have a compelling vision for the future of their farm. The challenge is that frequently the vision is not articulated so it can be clearly communicated to family members, including the succeeding generation and employees. As farm businesses  become larger and our industry becomes more turbulent, articulating and continuously communicating the compelling vision becomes even more important. If Korczak Ziolkowski had not engaged his wife and their children in his vision to honor Crazy Horse and the North American Indians, the Crazy Horse Memorial would be a symbol of a failed dream, rather than an inspiration for all that visit.



Robert Milligan is senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC. He can be reached via e-mail:
rmilligan@trsmith.com; phone: 651-647-0495; or website: www.dairystrategies.com.



SIDEBAR: Leadership lessons

1) Many leaders reluctantly respond to the call of their followers and/or the draw of
their vision.

2) Great ideas and great strategies often emerge from adversity. 

3) Never, never underestimate the power of vision.