Nurturing a mountain

Bear Butte Mountain - Southern View

A view of Bear Butte from the south. It gets its name from its resemblance to the form of a slumbering bear.

In early July, I visited my Mom and step-dad in South Dakota, where they spent this summer volunteering at Bear Butte State Park. Bear Butte and its staff left quite an impression on me.

As someone who has been pondering passion – how to find, follow, live, and sustain it – I came away from Bear Butte with the understanding that following a passion and sustaining it is difficult, sweaty, hard physical work mixed in with a lot of emotional labor. Most importantly, the staff at Bear Butte are not the ones calling what they do “following their passion,” or pontificating about whether or not they’re living the passionate life, whether or not they’ve found the thing they’re on this earth to do. More often than not, there are people out there, like the staff at Bear Butte State park, just doing the hard work under less than optimal circumstances, because the works needs to be done.

Perhaps another reason why the work being done at Bear Butte struck such chord with me was that it echoed a call I heard earlier this summer about the need for conscious leadership. In June, I attended the Management Innovation Exchange Mashup, where companies and organizations seeking to reinvent management for the 21st century showed off their case studies of how organizations could be made more human, adaptable, inventive, accountable, and inspiring. John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, discussed a need for what he called “conscious leadership.” Conscious leaders, he said, have three kinds of intelligence:

  • Emotional intelligence – the ability to understand yourself and how you relate to others.
  • Spiritual or values intelligence – this gives you the ability to discern purpose.
  • Systems intelligence – the ability to see value for the whole connected system.

Conscious leadership, says Mackey, requires high intentionality. Conscious leaders invest in contemplative practices. They help people grow and evolve. They play to their strengths. These leaders create shared purpose and they never stop communicating it. Furthermore, they never waste a crisis; rather they see it as an opportunity. Conscious leaders are entrepreneurs of meaning who create high energy places where people can bring their passion to work.

Sign: Beware of rattlesnakes. Staying on the trail may help you avoid rattlesnakes.

The key word here is “may.” It also may not…

From my short time at Bear Butte State Park, it became obvious that park director Jim Jandreau is such a leader.

As I hiked the mountain with Lon, one of the staff members, I could see the meaning he took to work each day. He didn’t engage the back-breaking work of trail maintenance and tree planting in rattlesnake country just for the thrill of it. (Although, there certainly was a thrill to this former country girl-turned city girl hiking in Vibram five-fingers, worrying about whether or not a rattlesnake was going to attack an ankle around the next bend. It made me better appreciate my step-dad’s rattlesnake boots, even if the Bear Butte staff made fun of him for wearing them.)

As you look across the plains, and you took in the flora and fauna that Lon pointed out all the way up the mountain (the chokeberries, various kinds of sage, bergamot flowers, mint, Russian olive trees…), you couldn’t help but imagine how the Native American tribes that first came upon Bear Butte decided that this was a mountain where you could convene with the Creator. Even after a devastating wildfire and drought, the mountain offered a diverse ecosystem not available for miles in the surrounding plains. As we hiked up the mountain, Lon would grab a chokeberry or two along the way, borrowing the mountain’s moisture and antioxidants to protect him from the sun along the way.

A view of the plains north of Bear Butte

A view of Bear Butte, its erosion and trail work

In this photo, you see what they nickname the “Himalayan Stairs.” One day, a 90-year-old man in a wheelchair showed up at the visitor center. He had apparently climbed the Himalayas with Sir Edmond Hillary, and explained how the Bear Butte Staff could make stairs that interlocked and slid with erosion, so that the stairs didn’t have to be constantly rebuilt.

Back in the Visitor’s Center, Monnie will show you around the exhibits, and give you background on the Native American history and culture surrounding the mountain. Monnie has jet-black hair and deep, dancing, mischievous eyes, through which you can see a depth of experience and purpose about her. Curious about the bust of Frank Fools Crow out front, I browsed the books about Native American spirituality. Monnie suggested The World We Used to Live In: Remember the Powers of the Medicine Man by Vine Deloria, Jr. She said it was accessible and one of the author’s easiest reads.

Statue of a Lakota Holy Man, Visionary, Ambassador, Storyteller

Statue of a Lakota Holy Man, Visionary, Ambassador, Storyteller

As I browsed the exhibits, I was astonished to learn that up until director Jim’s arrival about 11 years ago, the Visitor Center held no mention of the Native American heritage of this sacred ground, only the heritage of General Custer and the use of the mountain as a guiding landmark by those looking to tap into the gold rush in the late 1800s.

Jim has a tough job. Bear Butte is a small state park with a lot of people who care about it. Stakeholders include the state government, a bit of the federal government (Bear Butte is listed by the National Park Services as a national natural and historical landmark), about 17 different Native American tribes who practice their religion here, naturalists, non-Native American seekers, tourists, and ranchers who graze their cattle on the adjacent lands. Bear Butte also has a small herd of buffalo, which adds to the spiritual ambience for Native American tribes.

My impression of Jim was that he is the ultimate diplomat – one who has to negotiate between several groups. Amongst the competing human stakeholders, there’s no small amount of prejudice when it comes to Native Americans. Bear Butte and surrounding areas has quite a contentious history that we don’t discuss much in this country. We didn’t talk about it much during my visit, but you can feel its charged undercurrent as you travel around these parts of South Dakota.

In managing Bear Butte state park, you don’t get a break in dealing with the human contentiousness. It’s not enough that each of the human groups want to manage the land in particular ways – Mother Nature has her say as well. As a conscious leader who makes it all work, Jim has to check his ego at the door (emotional intelligence), derive purpose and meaning (spiritual or values intelligence), and understand how the actions of him and his staff impact the whole (systems intelligence).

When I came back from the hike with Lon, hot, parched, and impressed, I looked at the staff – Monnie, Mike, Fred, and Lon – I said, “Wow, you guys have your work cut out for you.” They said, “Yep – we’re nurturing a mountain.”

That nurturing happens because of Jim Jandreau’s leadership, and his staff’s passion for what they do.

Since I’ve visited Bear Butte, the South Dakota State Park system has undergone significant budget cuts, which required Bear Butte to lay off some of the staff. Lon and Fred had to leave before the end of the season. Monnie is still there, but the visitor center hours have been cut short. Those who are left have started closing down the park well before the summer season has ended. What Bear Butte needs is more staff, not fewer. I believe if more people received the tour that I was lucky to receive, they would develop a connection to the land through experience. As it is, most people are warmly received at the Visitor’s Center, but are invited to hike the mountain on their own – no stories about rattlesnakes, Himalayan stairs, chokecherries, Native American pilgramages, or gold rush wayfinding while you’re huffing and puffing up the mountain.

Bear Butte and other national and state parks offer us the opportunity to experience conscious leadership – the emotional, spiritual, and systems intelligence that we need to run our businesses and organizations sustainably today. We need to nurture them.

If you can’t make it to Bear Butte anytime soon, I’ve created a mind map of my experience, complete with hyperlinks that I’ve found for more information or reference.

Mind map of Bear Butte experience

In the meantime, if you’re someone looking for your passion, why not start by asking the question – what needs your nurturing? Don’t be worried if you have to don on your rattlesnake boots. The work will be long, hard, and backbreaking, and if worth doing, there will probably be a pit viper or two involved.

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2 thoughts on “Nurturing a mountain

    • Thank you, Laurie, for taking the time for the journey! I find that I write these posts to remind myself later of all the lessons, and it’s so lovely when others find them meaningful, too. I love your website and am so glad that conscious leadership consulting businesses like yours exist!

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