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Balance Woman of the Year - MSU Leadership Institute's Carmen McSpadden - Inspiring the next generation to become stellar leaders

April 8, 2008View for printing

The great secret to a fulfi lling life is to spend quality time with people who are focused on doing good in the world,” says Carmen McSpadden.

For more than two decades, the lively McSpadden, 49, has been a leader in “doing good” herself, and in helping others learn to become vanguards in the pursuit of the common good. She has been recognized for her guidance of local and statewide public education organizations, in economic development, the arts and public lands preservation, although she is quick to share credit with her colleagues for their successes.

BY NANCY KESSLER Balance: A Magazine for Montana Women

“Carmen has a deep commitment to mentoring our youth, community health and to our environment,” said Deidre Combs, who was Balance’s Woman of the Year in 2005. “She has always been an extraordinary asset to our community.”

Diana Stevens, who also nominated McSpadden for this year’s award, added, “This woman is what we all hope to be — unbelievably generous, inspired and passionate, creative, loving, humble, witty, optimistic and brilliant… She’s absolutely unassuming, moving through this life with rare grace and integrity.”

McSpadden contributes her boundless energy and enthusiasm to the community in a myriad of roles, including successful leadership trainer, college instructor, community board member, entrepreneur, wife and mother of two teenage sons. “Being involved in local issues is not diffi cult,” she laughed. “Having a positive impact on the community is personally enjoyable and enriching. I’m energized by the chance to be surrounded by like-minded people.”

In recent years, McSpadden has used her abilities to instill leadership skills in the next generation, as Director of the Montana State University Leadership Institute and a College of Business faculty member, and in her peers as a developer of and trainer for Leadership Montana, a year-long course for professionals from every vocation across the state.

“Leadership Montana includes examining the skill sets needed to lead change, what does courageous leadership look like, how to nurture employees or colleagues in your own style, and defi ning your personal vision and mission,” she said. “I don’t really train them — I get to share their experience and knowledge. It’s very empowering.” The same holds true in her work with college students. “The Institute really strikes a chord in terms of my personal values,” said McSpadden. “We are responsible for building and growing the next generation of leaders. We do that by working with them day by day, giving them the opportunity to take risks, to connect, and surround them with other leaders on an international scale.”

In five years, McSpadden expanded the Institute from a solo-run organization to a vibrant collaborative of ten student staff members and 20 student volunteers who provide leadership development to other MSU students and the community through workshops, retreats, and hosting national and international speakers, including such luminaries as anthropologist Jane Goodall, authors Ishmael Beah and Eric Weiner and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi.

“At this time of my life, I am thinking a lot about courageous leadership and its importance at the local, state and national level,” McSpadden said. Ebadi, an Iranian woman seeking peaceful solutions to her country’s social problems, exemplifi es that courage at an international level because, despite being imprisoned for her work, she remains an unshakeable fi ghter for the rights of women and children. And giving the Institute students an opportunity to learn from such a leader is inspiring as well.

“You know they are going to have a powerful impact on the world,” McSpadden said. “You can see it as they go out and train other student organizations. I encourage them to learn how to speak from your authentic self, to be who you are, and never deny that. If they can get that between the ages of 18 and 25, they are so much farther ahead in making a difference in this world.” McSpadden has a similar effect on students in the classroom, where she developed the curriculum for and teaches Career Perspectives.”The focus is not only on developing a business career, but where life is taking them, and gaining perspective on their own lives,” she said.

She is also in the process of developing a new campus program with University College called MSU Leadership Fellows, which will “challenge students to discover their true potential by developing ethical and critical thinking skills as they relate to leadership,” according to Vice Provost Greg Young. “It is intended that these students will become effective agents of positive change in society.”

McSpadden praises Young for his support of the new program, which will provide these skills to hundreds of students.”Greg really recognizes that unless we begin this process now, we will have a void of leadership in the future,” she said. In turn, Young credits McSpadden for being a creative force in this arena. “Carmen is so innovative,” he said. “She has a great ability to bring people together. This program wouldn’t have come about without Carmen’s innovation and hard work.”

McSpadden attributes her passion for community involvement to her family. She was raised in Essex Junction, Vermont, where her father’s role as chair of the school board was often discussed at the dinner table. “Education was stressed, but my father modeled giving back to the community,” she said. “Additionally, my parents encouraged me to do and be all I could, and as a daughter not to let my sex hold me back.”

McSpadden brought her signifi cant talents to the Gallatin Valley in 1985, when she and husband Doug opened Bozeman’s fi rst adventure vacation company, then called Backcountry Bicycle Tours and later Backcountry Adventures, to connect clients with the natural world. “We love the outdoors — it’s why we live here, a part of who I am,” she said. “I like to play, and I do play hard. It’s as strong a part of my life as work. One feeds the other.”

Growing to a staff of 25, the company took more than 1,200 clients a year on one- to threeweek trips around the globe. “The business was part of learning leadership building,” she said. “I was training and mentoring people, in how to treat clients, guide people and help them fulfi ll their goals.”

Ten years later, as her elder son was about to enter school, the couple was able to sell the business and pursue new dreams. For Doug, that meant large-format photography, and for Carmen, it was “to be a mom and focus on my children and my community. As a woman, my greatest joy is seeing my family thrive.” She would like to see both her sons become leaders and committed to community involvement in their adult lives, and she has set them a good example.

She not only joined the Anderson School Board for eight years, eventually becoming the chair and overseeing a $1.3 million expansion, she also joined the Montana School Board Association Board of Directors, serving as president and chair of the Strategic Planning and Vision and Goal Setting Committees, among others, during her six-year term.

During the same period, she joined the Gallatin County Planning Board, and helped create and then chair the Open Lands Board, which she guided through a successful $10 million Open Space Bond sale to preserve undeveloped land in Gallatin County. “It was the fi rst publiclysupported bond of its kind in Montana,” she said.

“It was a great process in community-building, bringing together taxpayers, the ag community, conservationists, a real cross-section.” McSpadden has found that public education and land use issues are two areas where she shares a passion with both like-minded people and those of differing opinions. As a woman, combining altruism and authority can really make things happen, she said, and the leadership tracks through her life really came together through her community work.

“It is my view that the greatest leaders have a keen understanding of their core values,” she said. “These values, combined with our authenticity as a person, often determine whether people are willing to follow us as a leader. More importantly, great leaders also have the courage to put those values into action, and to support the common good, leading both self and others towards a better community, and better world.”

“Heart” in a leader — a combination of commitment, enthusiasm and trust — can lead people to do more than they think possible, she added. “A person with heart has great vision, and creates the trust and passion to move others towards the needed change or the new vision. Finally, and most importantly, great leaders build and support the leadership capacity of those around them, helping others to grow as individuals, to achieve, to improve and to lead.”

When she learned she was being named this magazine’s Woman of the Year, McSpadden said, “It struck me that I struggle with balance in my own life, because of my fiery personality and wanting to be involved in everything. It’s a daily practice for me to align myself with my personal vision. I ask ‘Am I doing the things I am most passionate about, and are there also things I feel strongly about but have to let go?’ and then have to find the courage to do so. I can’t do it all at the same time because if I try, I get out of balance.”

McSpadden will get some time to reflect on maintaining balance, and what’s next in her life, while floating the Grand Canyon this June. “I can get a personal connection, get to know my own soul in a wilderness setting,” she said. “That length of time for reflection couldn’t come at a better time.” Still, McSpadden said she greatly appreciates her “pretty normal life,” and knows she could not have accomplished it without an equal partnership with her husband. “The best thing I ever did in my life was marrying this man,” she said. For his part, Doug has said he’s looking forward to sleeping with the Woman of the Year, at least this year’s award recipient, she laughed.

Always modest, McSpadden claimed she was simply “very lucky to be chosen” for the recognition. “There are so many deserving women in our community that are doing exactly the kind of things I am.” Clearly, McSpadden is a leader among them.

Nancy Kessler, a journalist and photographer for more than 20 years, is a freelance writer based in Livingston, and the Program Coordinator for the Livingston Education Foundation.
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Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. Full copyright retained by the original publication. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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