Leaders are the life-blood of small towns and rural communities. The success or failure of community development efforts often rests with the degree of leadership local citizens are willing to provide. In 2008, we ran a four-part series on leadership in the Center for Rural Affairs newsletter. We share that information below. Topics include:
- Identifying leadership skills
- Civic entrepreneurs as leaders
- Collaborative leadership
- Finding new and emerging leaders
I’m always on a quest to figure out the characteristics of successful rural community leaders. We’ve long recognized the need to find and develop leaders in a community, looking from the quiet folks who have the ability to lead but have not had an opportunity to our younger, emerging leaders to develop their leadership skills in hopes we can eventually bring them home.
There is no template or personality type. Leaders come in all sizes, shapes, generations, experiences and so forth. And I think we have to admit that within this hodge-podge there are good, great, and not-so-great leaders.
I’m most interested in effective leaders – what results do they achieve? According to studies by Target Training International, effective leaders share some fundamental skills:
- Interpersonal skills – the ability to interact with others in a positive way.
- Self-management – the ability to prioritize and complete tasks and deliver them within an allotted time; the ability to control oneself under stress.
- Personal accountability – the ability to answer for personal actions.
- Influencing others – the ability to personally affect other’s actions, decisions, opinions or thinking.
- Goal achievement – the overall ability to set, pursue and attain achievable personal, professional and team goals regardless of obstacles or circumstances.
These skills are important because one of the underlying components common to individuals who possess them is trust both with individuals and groups. If you can’t trust someone to do what they promise to do, how can you trust that they will lead your community in the right direction? Once trust has been established, results can eventually follow.
Civic entrepreneurs are community leaders for the 21st Century. They possess the skills of effective leaders. But, as the word “entrepreneur” suggests, civic entrepreneurs also have a vision and see possibilities where others may not. They tend to be optimistic and hopeful and find reasons why things can happen rather than reasons why they cannot. Persistence is a key personality trait.
The ability to collaborate is an especially important trait of civic entrepreneurs. Collaborative leaders recognize the need to be inclusive and, as a result, seek to bring a diverse group of people to the table, look for common ground, and move forward together as a team to accomplish goals. Think of people in your community who routinely do this and what the results have been.
As we experience declining populations in our communities, civic entrepreneurs see opportunities where others may not. They recognize a need for networking and collaboration and look not only to the next town and region but to international partnerships as well.
Civic entrepreneurs think beyond the borders of their community – something we are encouraged to do as we continue to see opportunities for regional approaches in economic and community development. Programs such as Nebraska’s Building Entrepreneurial Communities Act (BECA) are excellent examples of working regionally. This program requires a minimum of two communities to work together with community leaders who understand collaboration. Successful BECA projects have had at their helm civic entrepreneurs.
Successful rural leaders share key leadership skills such as the ability to prioritize, complete and deliver work; interpersonal skills; personal accountability; and the ability to influence others and achieve goals in spite of obstacles and difficulty. Many of these skills can be learned, practiced and perfected.
When leadership traits are modeled, what does that look like? Probably the best way to answer that question is to give a concrete example and introduce you to two community leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with recently.
If asked, these two folks would most likely not see themselves in the role of leader, yet at the end of a meeting I attended, everyone in the room looked to them to see what the next steps would be. In other words, these individuals were recognized as the folks who had earned their community’s trust to get something accomplished and were leading the effort to move forward. This is a perfect example of successful and effective leadership.
They recognize that their community is facing problems: dwindling population and need for economic activity. However, instead of assuming nothing can be done, they have organized their community in such a way that people are engaged, energized, and turning out to meetings in record numbers. There’s a sense and underlying trust that something can and will be done – and the trust is there because it has been earned and proven.
These leaders have seen collaboration as a powerful and necessary tool for success. They have reached out to neighboring communities and brought them along – and this is particularly noteworthy. They do not see a need to compete with each other or to exclude – instead they see an opportunity to collaborate. They have acknowledged that their own community can be strengthened by strengthening their sister communities as well. This models leadership for the 21st century.
They tend to use a leadership style that is generally referred to as servant leadership – a sort of “leading from behind” while helping others grow. This style is very effective in building a strong sense of community.
My guess is that if I left and came back even in five years, this community would show much growth toward a strong economic base and stable population … and some of their youth would have plans to come home.
Effective leadership is absolutely necessary to advancing a community’s future. This has been driven home to me time and time again, and you’ve probably all experienced it. Someone has a great idea for a community project, but no one takes the lead to completion. All you get out of the great idea is a few meetings and the frustration that “nothing gets done.” When this happens, it’s difficult to get people involved again.
Good leaders are precious to a community, and offering those you already have your continuing support is important. But it’s also essential for the community to identify and develop new and emerging leaders. How do you go about this?
To find those who fit the bill, keep the following questions in mind (these hold true for any age group). Does the person:
- Always look for ways to improve things?
- See a challenge and not a problem?
- Readily accept responsibility with the persistence to see something through to the end?
- Encourage those around them?
You should also consider whether the person is:
- Well respected among peers? (People will most often follow someone they like and respect.)
- A self-starter? One who takes initiative?
- One who has demonstrated leadership in the past? (Think of all types of leadership experiences. For example, has someone demonstrated leadership in your school’s parent/teacher organization? Has a high school student organized a successful food drive?)
Both groups – present community leaders and new, emerging ones – must remain flexible if they are to succeed on the community’s behalf. I often hear from emerging community leaders that they are not allowed to follow some of their ideas. It’s not only frustrating, but the likelihood of keeping that new emerging leader around is small.
The responsibility falls to both sides in building a continual cadre of emerging leaders. Current leaders must let go a little bit, and emerging leaders must build a foundation of trust with current leaders. This will allow a comfortable and smooth transition with minimal conflict – ultimately good for communities’ futures.