Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Farmers Can Be Effective Leaders

December 17, 2007

Ernie Pyle, a famous World War II correspondent, was asked to comment on the difference in morale of the different fighting units he saw in the South Pacific. He said that as close as he could tell it boiled down to two factors, confidence in the leaders and pride in the outfit.

Leadership begins at the top. In a market-oriented competitive economy, the livelihoods of many depend on the forceful and visionary leadership of top executives to innovate and adapt to changing conditions.

Is there something magical about becoming a leader? What does a leader do? How do people become influential in the lives of others, command respect and invite emulation?

A leader has knowledge and vision. Natural curiosity and a drive to learning pave the way for future leadership. A student is open to learning from peers, teachers, and the experience and wisdom of the family. Instead of being put off or threatened by another's ideas, a learner seeks out the best teachers and knowledge available.

Impelled by curiosity, a leader is naturally drawn to figuring out why things happen. Work is compelling for its own sake. Take farming for example. The farm is a natural laboratory with all kinds of interesting biological and physical phenomena, subject to weather conditions.

Production of a crop is just one factor in the success or failure of a farm. Much depends on the interaction of political and economic issues far from the farm gate. The demands, challenges and complexity of farming are intriguing and exciting.

Curiosity isn't confined to early career development. A curious person continues to build a deepening reservoir of knowledge and wisdom. A dynamic farmer in his 50s with a lifetime on the land told me he is still learning. "Every once in a while I'll see something I've never seen before. You wouldn't think it would happen that way but it does."

Curiosity extends far beyond agriculture and can even interface with related fields. The curious and energetic person reads widely and exposes himself to people in totally different fields of endeavor. More often than not, new or transforming perspectives about farming will come from these extraordinary experiences. Questions and problems are reformulated in new and compelling ways.

A leader inspires. A leader stimulates the imagination of others. A leader's gift of placing problems in a larger framework raises followers out of despair and gives them new hope.

Napoleon said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." A leader's vision helps him or her recognize opportunities and skillfully exploit them. The new opportunities capture the imagination, hope and energy of others who trust the leader's vision and see new possibilities for themselves.

A leader is persuasive. A leader is skillful in shaping the environment that affects ultimate success or failure. A leader actively influences external forces in the political arena. Networks and coalitions are formed. Critics are co-opted. Deals are negotiated. Impressions and images are shaped and molded.

Through persuasive communication skills, a leader manipulates and lobbies to bring needed resources to bear on his or her cause. Farmer/leaders influence legislation, mobilize product promotion campaigns and develop new markets.

A leader anticipates the future and is ahead of the curve in meeting the challenges of tomorrow. Farmers add new ideas to their already expansive storehouse of knowledge to keep their farm operation viable.

A leader cares about others. The leader defines a larger cause and vision which embraces not only their well being but of others as well. Leaders make their greatest contribution in the way they carry others along in the sweep of their wake.

Followers perform at higher levels because of the leader's influence. A leader energizes his or her followers with purpose and encourages them to transcend self-interest in more worthy and fulfilling causes.

A leader's appeal is emotional. Associates and followers feel better about themselves. They become aware of their higher and more noble aspirations and how to get there.

A leader gives personal attention, feedback and encouragement. A leader is on the front lines and communicates openly on an equal basis. Instead of a top down communication model, people relate better to a horizontal leadership structure. They engage each other freely with suggestions, interest, debate, give and take and mutual influence. A leader sets the example and followers rise to the standards of his or her performance.

A farmer might say to his son, "If I can do it, you can surely do it. Here, let me show you how." Or, "Let's do this together." Leaders get down in the trenches and get their hands dirty. A leader is generous with praise, appreciation and recognition.

A leader fosters teamwork. Social factors play a role. A leader succeeds because of the inordinate amount of time he puts in goal setting, team building, consideration of the individual needs and development of others and effective communications.

The best leaders work within the context of a team. Family members and employees like being around each other and enjoy each other’s company as they work together.