I’ve just returned from a trip to northern Nicaragua, where we were visiting SOPPEXCCA, a 750-strong farmer coffee cooperative managed by an extraordinary leader, Fatima Ismael. Fatima and I have worked together for a decade, and I always look forward to talking to her about the history of Fair Trade and the cooperative movement in Nicaragua, in which she’s played a key role. Fatima is the lifeblood of SOPPEXCCA, and I’m always in awe when I see her in action. She’s one of very few leaders able to straddle that fine line between leading with tenacity and leading with humility.
After visiting SOPPEXCCA, my colleagues and I made our way to Costa Rica. One night, huddled around a table at a restaurant overlooking the entire valley of San Jose, our conversation turned to the news of Mandela’s passing. We were spending some time—as I think everyone did that day—reflecting on him, his life and his leadership when one of my Costa Rican colleagues said something that struck me as profound: “He was just a little bit bigger than everyone else,” she said. “He wasn’t a ton bigger, just a little bit bigger.” The magic of Mandela’s leadership came from the fact that he was, indeed, just a little bit bigger.
I thought about that for a while after dinner had ended, and realized that Fatima—the humble, powerful leader of SOPPEXCCA—is, also, just a little bit bigger than everyone else in her community. Watching her lead almost takes your breath away. There’s not a drop of arrogance or officiousness or entitlement in her leadership. It’s this enlightened, profound leadership that has allowed her to have such a powerful influence over the coffee lands in Nicaragua and the Fair Trade movement. She’s just a little bit bigger.
When I asked Fatima last week about managing through her second massive coffee crisis, she responded: “Ha, those who are freaked by this dollar per pound market (down from $3+/lb in 2011) surely didn’t experience 45 cents a pound in the early 2000s. We’ll see this through as well, don’t worry.” And with Fatima at the helm, I have every reason to believe that they will indeed.
As we move into 2014 and Root’s 15th year, I feel light on my feet knowing that we have leaders like Fatima who are just a little bit bigger to bring us through the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.