Step Up and Be a Leader

By: Dr. Kohl

While listening to side conversations traveling through airports, discussion at producer seminars, and at the community church picnic, everyone is asking, “Where has the leadership gone?”  Whether you flip on cable television, or follow the soap opera politics playing out at all levels, leadership is being questioned.

Society and the world have become more fragmented by information and technology, which tends to create a loss of focus.  In a world where economic volatility and speed of change are accelerating, the opportunities for success are plentiful; however, the opportunities for failure are also abundant.  Proactive, strong leadership is essential to maintain focus.

Leaders at All Levels

Leadership can be demonstrated in many forms at all levels given the situation or timing of an event.  For some, leadership is shown by providing guidance to a 4-H project or FFA event, supporting the local rescue squad, or coaching a football or basketball league.  Serving on church, community, or agricultural boards, or representing your industry locally, regionally, or nationally can be a context for leadership.  Often an unusual event or emergency brings out the best leadership qualities of everyday normal people.  However, for many the day-to-day interaction with family, employees, suppliers, and the community shows evidence of leadership and focus on success.

Great leadership is built on the art of communicating a vision, core value, or principle. Moreover, it involves inspiring a person or group of people with common values and ideals to create and pursue within their personal skill sets.

The “Why” Connection

The foundation of great leadership is the “why” connection.  I recently watched a video of Simon Sinek on the TEDTalks YouTube Channel in which he explained how leaders inspire action through the power of “why.” ( The main idea of his message was that people connect with you when they believe what you believe, or have a similar purpose, motivation, or “why.” After sharing this video at a strategic planning conference of an agricultural cooperative, I asked the group a simple question.  Why do you work for this particular agricultural cooperative?  Many in the group thought responses would be picking up a paycheck or providing for the family.

To everyone's surprise, we received a different set of responses.  Many felt that it was empowering to work with farms engaged in producing food, fiber and fuel for a growing world population.  Others stated they enjoyed having coworkers with similar beliefs and a work environment that is like family.  Some stated their lives are enriched by the challenge and fun of helping agricultural producers solve problems.  One person stated that he enjoys working in this business because the people are more important than the quarterly financial bottom line. The special relationships that they have with their customers rank much higher than a paycheck. 

The leadership of this management team suddenly realized that the connection between employees and customers who have very similar “whys” set them beyond the status quo of the competition.  Knowing the “whys” took them to another level.  As a matter of fact, this organization now has established a “why statement” that speaks from the heart and goes beyond the traditional mission, vision, and core values. The same can apply to your situation whether it is work, family, or a community setting. Effective leaders are able to connect with people who have a similar purpose, cause or belief.

Key Elements of Leadership

Over the years I have been in a position to examine many outstanding leaders while involved in athletics, teaching, and facilitating numerous agricultural groups.  The following list, though not exhaustive, provides key elements of leadership that I have observed.

  • Building a team on a single purpose, vision, and focus
  • Knowing how to gain commitment of others with goals and actions
  • Creating an environment of empowerment
  • Thinking and acting independently and creatively, but also gaining consensus with balanced input
  • Remaining believable and positive, while understanding the capabilities of others
  • Praising, reinforcing, critiquing, and sometimes working through others as agents of change
  • Making others better, lifting, and enriching lives

Many great leaders never forget their roots; they are humble and always remember the people who got them where they are today.  Good leaders tend to be superior listeners and observers of people’s verbal and nonverbal communication.  They know how to motivate others and realize that each individual is unique, having special experiences and talents that, if unlocked, can make them blossom.  Outstanding leaders never forget that change starts bottom-up, not top-down, and they value people and input from the front lines.

What is fun to observe about great leaders is some are fiery like Bob Knight, while others are quiet and subtle, but passionate. One quality that all great leaders possess is the ability to connect with people by establishing a common purpose. Sometimes leaders can be subservient, or engaged with people in an activity side-by-side, “walking the talk.”  However, they are keen on the art of connecting with the minds and the hearts of others to further a common cause with balance and common sense.

Agriculture and rural America have many of the old-time values that have made America great. It is up to all of us to be advocates for our industry and cultivate an environment that sets us beyond the status quo.  Being leaders by connecting and communicating the “whys” from our day-to-day tasks on farms to working with families, employees, consumers, and stakeholders in our industry is imperative to lead the industry forward.  Agriculture has been and will always be the foundation of the pyramid of success of our country.  Are you ready to step up and be a leader?