Lack of leadership may be the single biggest void in modern agricultural operations, says Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal columnist and founder of Legacy by Design, a succession planning firm.
"We often sense a real deficiency in farm leadership during our succession planning encounters," Spafford says. Many farms today are operated by producers who want to increase profits and expand, but who lack education and experience in leading the operation toward this kind of long-term growth.
Skill Sets. Purdue University leadership specialist Jane Ayres says farmers need to understand the difference between managing and leading. "Both are important, but the focus and skills are different."
Management focuses on current issues and day-to-day activities like employee supervision and record keeping, she says. Leadership, on the other hand, focuses on future issues and anticipates likely changes, such as needed succession planning.
Ayres says most people have a leadership capacity that can be developed through self-awareness, education and training, and good old-fashioned practice.
"Leadership requires stepping out of the daily routine to anticipate the short- and long-term future, identify changes that need to be made, develop a plan and communicate closely with those who will be impacted," Ayres adds.
The problem with leadership is that although it's easy to identify in people, it's difficult to define. To help farmers improve, Spafford developed the list of characteristics to cultivate that appears below.
The good news, he says, is that leadership begets leadership. "Strong leaders are more likely to gather and train a team of capable talent, creating a bench of backup leaders and a team of willing participants," he says.
Leadership Characteristics to Cultivate
Integrity and Commitment: "These are the most important traits of a leader," Spafford says. Nothing trumps honesty, hard work and perseverance.
Structure: Having day-to-day matters handled through systematic processes, financial control and team building frees time for leadership issues.
Mentors: "Don't ever overlook the value of a good mentor," Spafford says. "The opportunity to learn from the experience of another person is priceless. It increases effectiveness while stabilizing the learning curve."
Studying the Organization: Especially for successors in a family business, it's important to become a student of the organization, learning about its core values, processes and people. Producers must also become students of leadership,
motivation, management and business.
"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on." —Walter Lippmann, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist
Top Producer, October 2009