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Secrets of Success on Leon Panetta’s Walnut Farm

by Sheron Long on March 7, 2013

The Panetta walnut farm, one source of Leon Panetta's secrets of success

Morning light on Leon Panetta’s walnut farm
© Robert Long

Welcome Home, Mr. Panetta

The morning light illuminates Leon Panetta’s walnut farm in his beloved Carmel Valley, a place as unpretentious as the man himself. Fences here are a little bent, a little rusted and hardly the type that you associate with the words “Department of Defense.”

Yet, this walnut farm was home to Panetta whenever he could leave Washington, where he most recently served as Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

As he said in a 2012 interview with 60 Minutes, “I always thought it was important to get out of Washington . . . to come back home and kind of get your humanity back.”

Home Is a Walnut Farm

Leon Panetta, whose smile shows one of his secrets of success

Leon Panetta, a man with a smile

Leon Panetta’s accomplishments are well known. He has dedicated his life to public service, honoring his father’s view on the importance of giving back to the country that had given so much to his family.

From the perspective of his parents, who immigrated from Italy, the “so much” was the better life they found here for their children.

After selling their Monterey restaurant just after WWII, his parents bought the farm. The family planted the walnut trees themselves. Ever since, this place has been home to Mr. Panetta and later to his wife Sylvia and their three sons. As Mr. Panetta told 60 Minutes, “My body and soul are here.”

I understand why. Not only do I live a few blocks away in this beautiful valley, but having grown up in a family that made a living from pecans and walnuts, I know a little something about the draw of an orchard of nut trees.

On my walk yesterday past the Panetta farm, I began to suspect that this down-to-earth place might offer insight, too.

Finding Secrets of Success in Two Fields

Mr. Panetta graduated magna cum laude in political science, his chosen field along with law. Certainly, this was good preparation, but I believe another kind of field—the walnut farm—also holds secrets to his political success.

Why not? Where better to learn how to make it in Washington than on a nut farm? Just consider what a walnut farm can teach:

1.   How to Be Patient

Across the seasons, you have to turn the soil, tend the trees, wait for the trees to leaf out and the fruit to grow.

Winter on the Panetta walnut farm, where the cycle of the seasons builds patience, one of his secrets of success in life

The Panetta farm with winter clover means it’s almost time to turn the soil.
© Sheron Long

From his work in the walnut orchard, Mr. Panetta must have learned not to expect immediate results. In addition to fortitude, it took patience to track Bin Laden, to rebuild the CIA, and to lead the Department of Defense in reducing war and increasing rights for men and women in our Armed Services.

2.   How to Listen

Here in Carmel Valley, the cacophony of crows makes quite a stir. With so much cawing all at once, you have to learn to manage things if you want to hear the messages.

Cawing crow symbolizes learning how to listen, which is one of the secrets of success

Cawing crows create quite a stir.
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Sylvia Panetta adeptly ran the Congressional office here in Monterey during the 16 years that Leon Panetta was in Congress. Their commitment to listening must be why we, Panetta’s constituents, felt heard.

3.   How to Deal with a Tangle

The tree branches on the walnut farm are a gnarly tangle in their winter season. Good thing Mr. Panetta had dealt with this before he got to Washington.

A tangle of walnut branches on Leon Panetta's farm symbolizes another secret of his political success

A tangle of walnut branches on the Panetta farm
© Sheron Long

Maybe Mr. Panetta’s skill at pruning helped him know how to cut through debates between the branches of government, too. At Georgetown University, in his last speech before retirement, Panetta described how he and his peers untangled issues and avoided partisan dysfunction. (see video 18:42–24:56)

4.   How to Keep a Sense of Humor

Gophers love to tunnel through the soil here in Carmel Valley, and—OH—they can multiply! When they’re about to get the best of your farm, good traps and a little laughter are in order.

Gopher, a pest, shows that keeping a sense of humor is one of the secrets of success

Pests are everywhere, in Carmel Valley and DC.
© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Excellent at framing complex issues, Mr. Panetta also knows how to joke. Just a few weeks ago, when it took longer than expected to approve Chuck Hagel’s nomination as his successor, Panetta expressed his frustration this way: “I feel like it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ around here.”

5.   How to Work Together

The bottoms of the tree trunks on the Panetta farm show evidence of grafting, in which a cutting from one plant is inserted into the other. Grafting makes walnut trees sturdier and causes them to produce, years sooner, fruit of higher quality.

Walnut tree with evidence of grafting on trunk symbolizes that teamwork is one of the secrets of success

Two parts of different trees, joined through grafting, made this walnut tree strong.
© Robert Long

Like grafting, the propagation of good ideas in Washington depends on teamwork. Leon Panetta never lost sight of that. As a result, he earned trust in all quarters, receiving unanimous 100-0 approval of his nomination for Secretary of Defense.

Let’s recap—patience, listening well, untangling issues while keeping a sense of humor, and being on the American team. These are all good secrets of success. Oh, I see.

But there’s more to this Oh, I see moment—such secrets of success come naturally to a person like Mr. Panetta who lives his life wanting to do something rather than to be somebody.

What will Mr. Panetta do next? Again, the walnut farm offers a clue:

Bud on walnut tree at the Panetta farm symbolizes new life

A bud on one of Panetta’s trees points to new beginnings.
© Sheron Long

New life is always sprouting.  Mr. Panetta returns to The Panetta Institute of Public Policy, which he and Sylvia Panetta founded in 1997. He will moderate the acclaimed Lecture Series for 2013.

For more on Mr. Panetta’s life and values, see Julia Prodis Sulek’s article in the San Jose Mercury News.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “Secrets of Success on Leon Panetta’s Walnut Farm

  1. I love that he is growing nut trees in our beloved carmel valley. I was told that we don’t have the right climate. I would love to buy a small parcel and grow nut trees in Carmel Valley..How far into Carmel Valley?
    Any suggestions on people who may be able to give advice on the nut trees and their planting.
    any seminar on nut trees in the future?

  2. As a longtime admirer of Mr. Panetta, the retrospective trip through the walnut farm provides insights and lessons for those he left behind here in DC (where I live.) This visual and virtual guide to leadership might spur new growth and wisdom among our elected representatives who operate as if they are caught in a morass of quicksand. I’ll do my best to share this OIC moment in hopes that they may go back to the farm to find inspiration and courage to lead us out of this sequestered swamp. Now OIC and thank you!

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