One of my favorite stories is about the destruction of the cotton industry in Southern Alabama around the turn of the 20th century:
Beginning in about 1890 the Boll Weevil started what would be a 20 year migration from Mexico into Southern Alabama. By 1910 Enterprise, Alabama was a town of just over 2000 souls, most of which earned their living from agriculture, namely cotton farming. Shortly after 1910 the Boll Weevil was in many Alabama cotton fields, making short work of cotton crops. Naturally, this was a major concern for farmers and in fact, Tuskeege Institute’s George Washington Carver warned farmers to diversify their crops and plant things such as sweet potatoes, soy beans, and peanuts. I am certain many farmers wished later that they would have listened.
By 1915 Enterprise’s cotton crop was decimated by the Boll Weevil, leaving farmers in a wake of destruction and regret. Guess what they did next? Yep, they planted other crops, including peanuts. It took two years to recover but by 1917 Enterprise was not only back on its feet, it was one of the leading producers of peanuts and peanut products in the country. Two years later in 1919, Enterprise City Councilman Roscoe Fleming proposed that the city celebrate the Boll Weevil for helping turn the economy around. City Councilmen sometimes do… interesting things, but this guy suggested erecting a monument to an insect! So that’s what they did.
The Boll Weevil monument stands today in downtown Enterprise as a reminder that good can come from bad. That sometimes in defeat, comes victory. That tragedy can bring opportunity. Enterprise was right to build the monument.
I like this story because Enterprise was humble enough and smart enough to recognize what brought them to their knees was a blessing and not a burden. Leadership is much more than the ability to catastrophize when things go badly and it’s more than recovering from a disaster after it strikes. It’s listening to the people or circumstances trying to warn you. It’s doing what’s right no matter what, and when tragedy strikes, you search for your Boll Weevil.