“Be involved, make a difference, have a heart”
Byron Jay Lewis considers himself a citizen of Edinburg by choice, a decision he does not take lightly. “Where you choose to live, you owe that place respect and to bring your gifts to it,” says Lewis, President and Chief Executive Officer of Edwards Abstract and Title Co. This belief in civil responsibility and stewardship has driven Lewis to seek service opportunities since his arrival to the Valley. His early participation in the founding committee and first graduating class of Leadership Edinburg, now in its 26th year, was a transformative experience. It introduced him to new perspectives and people who shared his love for this region, its people, and culture. Leadership Edinburg is the first step for local leaders to start developing a common vision within their professional and community networks. “There is value in taking people who have the potential to be leaders and helping them build their leadership skills, but the real power is bringing together leaders of smaller realms to get a common vision that can bring together those backgrounds, experiences and skills,” says Lewis. The individuals brought together by Leadership Edinburg would become life-long allies in the cause for industry and community improvement, as the foundational group intended. His gifts for leadership and participation in many projects and collaborations were recently recognized; he was awarded the RGV Walk of Fame and Edinburg Chamber Man of the Year in 2015. “I’ve been acknowledged in several ways that I wasn’t expecting, which are meaningful to me,” Lewis says. “It brings out a quiet moment in me to think, ‘What a wonderful place we chose to live in.’ ”
Lewis was fresh out of law school when he moved down to the Valley from Houston in July of 1986. He fell in love with the area, and being an involved individual, he found himself on the board of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce a few years later, where the idea of a leadership program for Edinburg was born. “The executive director of the chamber had gone to a leadership program in Austin, and McAllen had been successful with theirs. Edinburg is a special place, so we decided we needed one,” Lewis remembered. Other members of the steering committee included Martha Noel, executive director at the chamber, local Certified Public Accountant , Alton Cook, Gary Henrichson, an attorney, and Ted Miller, a real estate developer. They gathered information about leadership programs from all over, deciding on a model that was comprehensive and would require a six-month commitment. “We wanted to use it to introduce people to the community and all the aspects of it, whether they’re from here or out of the area,” Lewis said. Realizing that successful programs are structured so success can be repeated, they established six major topics, including history of the region, political structure, and public safety, which are very similar to those being taught in current Leadership Edinburg courses (history, education, healthcare, politics, and quality of life). They learned about the qualities that make a leader, and how large projects require not only strong leadership, but cooperation.
The steering committee decided as a matter of integrity that they should be students of the course too, so they became the first graduating class of the program. “I’m really glad we did,” said Lewis, as uniting like-minded individuals has led to some substantial developments for Edinburg. Lewis remembers the first graduating class of ‘90 as a diverse group, ethnically, gender-wise, and in their backgrounds, which he feels was one of the biggest advantages of what Leadership Edinburg was doing. It brought together 25 individuals to develop a way to work towards common goals. “Leaders need to be sitting at the same tables more, looking at ways to make a difference rather than looking at ways to protect their status quo,” says Lewis. He found that everybody in the diverse group of local shakers and movers had something to add, if given the opportunity.
Aside from building leadership skills, leadership classes are powerful tools for bringing people together to accomplish something. “There’s value in laying down your swords of whatever political or religious differences we have,” says Lewis. “That’s powerful.” Leadership Edinburg had formed a network of people who Lewis was able to reach out to for help on a project he worked on, the kind of project he says takes a village: The Edinburg Boys and Girls Club. With the nonprofit organization, the Edinburg Foundation, Inc., which helped buy the land and develop the subdivision, the project became a reality. “It’s a system that allows us to make a difference,” says Lewis.
The system Leadership Edinburg has in place depends on new members every year, which he says the founding committee was aware of. “You start out enthusiastic, but because it’s a volunteer situation, and it’s such a commitment (there are so many other demands for people’s time); there are cycles. One year we’ll have 20 people apply for 25 spots, and other years we’ll have 100 people apply.” Still, the organization is going strong, and Lewis has high hopes for the future of Leadership Edinburg, in part because of the region’s unique demographics. In a world with aging populations, the average age in Edinburg is ~27.
“Think of the power of all these young people coming up!” enthused Lewis. “It’s transformative! Anywhere else in the country people are saying ‘Where are we going to find the employees with skills?’ In South Texas it’s easy; it’s the millennials.” Lewis thinks we have to do a better job opening doors for young people in the RGV, providing opportunities that will keep the young, savvy workforce from moving away, a major attractor for companies looking for new locations. “There’s going to be no place that can compare,” says Lewis. “If I were a big company looking for a location, I’d be looking down here. Mild climate, great workforce, great core values, great community, beautiful environment.” He recognizes that our proximity to the border is significant, as well. “If we join the stage as the million people on the U.S. side and two million on the Mexico side (we’re neighbors intertwined in the border), there’s a lot of potential here.” Lewis says that leadership at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley demonstrated great vision in uniting the region’s campuses. “If we present ourselves as a community from Brownsville to McAllen, including Harlingen, Mission, and Mercedes, then we have a voice equal to the big urban areas of the country,” says Lewis. “But if we fragment and present ourselves in smaller ways, it’s easier for people to disregard our voice and instead look to San Antonio or Dallas.”
As we can see all around us, many big companies have decided on the Valley for their next locations. With the growth that’s happening along the expressways, there’s a huge opportunity to prepare to avoid gridlock and congestion as seen in other Texas cities.
Anticipating the need for self-sustaining structures, and having the vision to enact them is a part of what makes a good leader. “But that’s a leadership issue statewide,” he says. “The problem is you start a project and by the time it’s done ten years later, it’s outdated. When I was in business school in ‘83, my professors were talking about our need for bullet trains from the Valley to Dallas and Houston. It’s a huge investment, and I understand the dollars are huge, but high speed rail would be beneficial. Hopefully leadership classes can help people with different backgrounds create that vision to anticipate things like that.”
Lewis believes there are higher principles that call us together to accomplish the kinds of things Leadership Edinburg aims to do. “I think it’s time we start focusing on the things that matter,” he says, referring to future generations who need help to reach their full potential. “I love the organizations that give these kids a chance (who can come from extremely difficult home situations) to go to school and excel. That’s one of the reasons I love Boys and Girls Club, Teach for America: these kids, they’re going to take care of the world, they’re going to transform the world.” At this point in his life, Lewis shared that he feels most proud of what he helped build at Leadership Edinburg. To date more than 430 people have met the Leadership Edinburg challenge. “We built a structure for people to interact together,” says Lewis. Looking back, he realizes that it’s the kind of structure that inspires people to do something to help others. “Wow, that’s cool.”
From what he learned in the class, personal experience, and extensive reading of biographies of great leaders, Lewis has identified several traits that together make a strong leader in an industry or community.
1) Has to be empathetic. Developing the curriculum and starting the class was the first “project” of the steering committee, but a few years into the program, a class service project would become integrated into the framework at the suggestion of the students. “I remember how proud I was at the evolution of that, because that’s the mindset we want,” said Lewis. “They aren’t just there for their own benefit; they’re there to do things and grow, and build connections, and I think that’s healthy for people. That was a sign that it was doing what it was supposed to be doing.”
2) Has to bring their gifts to the table. In the case of Edwards Abstract and Title Co., which is a service business, this came in the form of anticipating and meeting needs; making the process smoother, easier for their customer so they’re successful in completing their transaction is mutually beneficial because if not, they’ll lose them. “The key is always to be conscious of what it is you can do to help your customer accomplish what they need to do to be successful,” says Lewis. Having incorporated into their business statement that they bring people together to help them do their real estate transactions, the main concern of Edwards Abstract and Title Co.‘s employees is to be aware of that ultimate goal.
3) Has to know the risks, has to be willing to play full-on, or put themselves on the line. “If I’m making any sense here, there’s a vulnerability to a strong leader, because there are going to be some disappointments. If you’re leading, people are going to take shots at you, and you have to be willing to bring it,” says Lewis. “People who are too cautious to leave the safe spot and get in the line of fire are rarely good leaders. You have to step out right into the middle of the fire, and if you survive that, that’s a meaningful thing and you can make a difference.”
4) Has to bring what they have to offer with an open mind, and be willing to learn new lessons. “I was on the Texas Land Title Association Board that came up with the certification program for title insurance business associates, and I thought that was great,” remembers Lewis. “I signed up and took the test. At the time, I was serving on the board and challenging people to do it with me. As I’m taking the test I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, what if I don’t pass; I have to see the board members!’ But I passed it. It was crazy difficult, but now I’m a Certified Title Insurance Associate (CTIA) by the Texas Land Title Association.”
5) Has to have a sense of humility “It’s a danger for leaders for it to go to your head,” says Lewis. “There are so many people whose shoulders I’ve stood on. I’m more aware at 55 than ever of the contributions of my parents, grandparents. My mom’s parents were tenant farmers and pulled cotton sacks – my children don’t understand what that means.”
6) Has to be able to suffer defeats and losses gracefully and be able to celebrate victories and share credits with everybody who helped make it happen. In their own case, he says there were so many people who accepted himself and his wife and gave them all these opportunities when they chose Edinburg as their home. “The Valley’s such a wonderful place,” he says.
Edwards Abstract and Title Co.