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

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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