Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Runs The Show In Your Small Town

May 7, 2001

How do things get done in your town? Who runs the show? Who are the "movers and shakers" - the key players who give impetus and approval to major public policy decisions?

Generally speaking, a small leadership corps works behind the scenes. This group has a great deal of power and influence over the community and its economic development. Though they may not serve in elected and appointed positions, those who do are doing so with their blessing and guidance.

Historically the leadership circle was referred to as "the old guard," or "the good old boy" network or the "town fathers." This reflected the reality of male dominance of community leadership roles. In the last 25 years, many rural communities have included women in the upper echelon of local leadership.

The case for insiders. Communities who function well have unified leadership and are not fractionated off into competing groups. The leaders are inclusive and use their persuasive powers to develop consensus and commitment to local efforts at community betterment and activities.

At their best, the leadership corps recognizes the difference between their own vested interest and the community’s interest and walks a fine ethical line, though a rising tide lifts all boats. They are open to new ideas, newcomers, younger people and women in leadership roles. Not much happens in the community without their blessing and support. They probably get together on a regular basis at the local cafe to compare notes informally as they sort out the social and politically developments of their communities.

In communities where there is no core group of leaders at the center of action, leadership is often divided into contentious and fragmented groups. Special interest groups battle for their piece of the pie without looking after the community interest as a whole. Sometimes the death of a key leader can leave a leadership vacuum and bring community cohesiveness to a halt.

Abuse of power. The "good old boy" network gets a bad name for their insider politics that feather their own nest and keep out competing interests. They aren’t really working for the community as a whole. They become complacent and intolerant. They resist new ideas and use passive-aggressive tactics and political connections to discourage developments they don’t like.

They aren’t open to newcomers and imagine themselves to be better or more enlightened than others who have different ideas. Their history in the community gives them special perspective and experiences which could be beneficial but also is often used to take a defeatist stand against new ideas.

Perhaps the greatest detraction of "oldtimers" is the willingness of members of the community and even of the inner circle to defer to the core leaders without voicing their opinions and letting the in-group run things. Small groups can be isolated and dangerously undemocratic if there is too much deference to the established leaders.

A case study. A small cluster of four men graduated from high school at the same time. They were exceptionally bright and dynamic. After college, each returned to the community and established a viable business. They were drawn to each other out of common interest and respect.

With time, each accumulated the financial resources and clout to make things happen in the community. They dedicated a great deal of time to community service and projects. Their service wasn't entirely selfless because their businesses benefitted indirectly from the community improvements that were being made.

For the most part, their vested interests and the community interests became the same. They built up the infrastructure of the community through their progressive community-minded outlook. In a way, one could say they "bought" community loyalty for their business by their obvious generosity of time and money given to the community.

When faced with a choice between them and a competitor, local people were loyal and gave them their business. The respect they engendered was deserved and universal.

With each other as a support base and their relatively independent financial status, they had the courage to stand by their values and not bend to the whim of unsound causes.

They attracted a strong group of followers and auxiliary leaders who they helped place in official positions of power and visibility.

These men had lofty goals. They expected things to happen. They made things happen. They were builders. They had the resources and staying power to follow through on long-term goals. They had common vision and unity of direction. They were men of integrity and wisdom.

They were coalition-builders. They understood the opposition, reached out and included them in the process. Besides being bright, they were open-minded and able to listen to new ideas.

They were not abrasive or highhanded with their power. They were sensitive to other people's turf and built bridges of understanding and cooperation. They helped people save face. Their ability to care about the community as a whole was the hallmark of their leadership.

Who runs the show in your community? The rural communities who are holding their own in today’s changing economy have strong leadership at their center. Towns with a history of strong community-minded leaders find a way to recruit and replace themselves with like-minded leaders who carry on the tradition. This represents small town politics at its best.

Those communities who flounder either don’t have a cohesive group of leaders who work together or they have self-serving leaders who don’t command the respect and involvement of the community as a whole. It is hard to change a community if the people in charge don’t want it to change. Time will take its toll.