It’s been over a decade now that this industry became engaged in a pretty severe internal rift. The conflict was over differences in trade policy, mandatory country-of-origin labeling, and opposing views on whether the industry was better served by embracing value-based marketing, product branding and a consumer focus, or retain the more traditional sector mentality. The result was that fewer than 2% of cattlemen walked away from the industry’s mainstream organization to start another.
The two sides became deeply polarized, lines were drawn, differences emphasized, and communication basically ceased. There was no constructive engagement or dialogue; it became a full-blown conflict.
In order for an industry to thrive, its leaders need clarity; they need a vision. But instead of clarity, we ended up with the certainty that the other side was wrong. As a result, the industry lost the unity that allows it to speak with one voice in its efforts to strengthen the industry and make it more sustainable. Of course, we never have and likely never will, operate in an environment without some disagreement, but I do think it’s possible to return to one that has clarity of purpose.
Perhaps that begins by understanding the limitations of democracy. Holding the majority within an organization, whether it’s a small majority or a large one, doesn’t mean the majority can neglect the issues that the minority feels strongly about. That also doesn’t mean the majority should cave into the minority, but minority proponents and their viewpoints should be welcomed. Because most good ideas and innovations tend to come from the margins and not from the mainstream, we must respect those with strong opinions, even if those opinions aren’t a majority position.
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I think these principles were well illustrated by Democrats when they controlled both chambers of Congress during President Obama’s first two years in office. They forced through their agenda on a strictly party-line vote, without considering the opposition’s proposals because they had the majority numbers to do so. That heavy-handed approach did allow Democrats to pass their agenda, but it also sowed the seeds for what is now government gridlock.
From an industry perspective, the tradition and security associated with a commodity marketplace is understandable, but the virtues of differentiation and moving to a more value-based system are undoubtedly worth the discomfort associated with change. Let’s start talking and realize that clarity and certainty are two different things.
The one thing we can afford to be certain about is that we need to have our debates in the hallways of our meetings and not in the hallways of Congress or in the public’s eyes. It all begins with a commitment to remaining calm and truly listening – on both sides.
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