Ag leaders share thoughts on leadership |

Ag leaders share thoughts on leadership

Lynn Gordon, SDSU Ag Leadership Specialist/Assistant Professor

Like many of the readers of this publication, I was fortunate to be raised in agriculture, growing up on a purebred cow/calf and small grain farm. My parents were immersed in all aspects of agriculture from crop farming; breeding, showing and selling livestock; monitoring agriculture policy; and serving the next generation through 4-H and youth programs. During this time, my parents often talked about “master farmers” and “great volunteer leaders,” they emulated. Listening to their discussions and later in my agricultural professional career, I too became very intrigued with the people in agriculture as well as the concepts of leadership and organizational development. Over the years, I had the opportunity to watch and witness many styles of leadership.

When it was time to select my doctoral program research topic in leadership studies, I knew immediately I wanted to study leaders— but not just any leaders— leaders in agriculture settings. I wanted to try to answer, “What really brings a leader to leadership?” and hoped the research results would help the agricultural industry further understand leaders and leadership.

My final project was titled: “What Brings People to Leadership Roles: A Study of Beef Industry Leaders”. Focusing on beef industry leaders allowed me to keep my study manageable yet the results are applicable to agricultural leaders in general. Following research protocol, I identified and interviewed twelve beef industry leaders from all over the United States, who were currently serving the industry at a national level — nine men and three women. Two were seedstock industry representatives, four cow/calf producers, two representing backgrounder/stocker industry and four feedlot segment representatives. Strong emphasis was placed on selecting leaders who make their livelihood from the beef cattle industry and were actively involved in production agriculture. All participants were asked the same questions. (In the study, participant names were changed to not reveal the interviewees but rather to focus on their comments and views of leadership).

The research project goal was to explore leadership traits prevalent in beef industry leaders, to identify influences and motivators of the individuals serving in leadership roles for their organizations and to further analyze the structure of the industry in regard to leadership.

What did the beef leaders say?

Seven themes were identified from the interviews, and left in the actual wording used by the participants to emphasis the actual thoughts expressed. The complete dissertation contains many interesting direct quotes from the individuals, but unfortunately due to limited space here, I will focus on the main points.

Theme 1: The world is run by those who show up. This was a popular statement among the interviewees as many recalled hearing this statement at meetings attended over the years. They soon realized, you can’t be a leader if you don’t show up, or you can’t have a say in the future of the beef industry if your voice is not heard. Those individuals who show up are: willing to serve, volunteer their time, get active in their organizations and be dedicated to the future of the industry.

Theme 2: Represent what is best for the industry. The leaders interviewed expressed how they expected prior leaders to represent the industry to the best of their ability. Now as they serve in leadership roles, it has become very evident to them, that as new leaders they must have this same expectation of themselves. In order to have confidence in a leader you must feel self-assured the chosen leader is the right person for that role.

Theme 3: Be willing to carry the bucket. In the case of the interviewee who made this statement they referred to a bucket of water, but what they really were referring to was responsibility. A leader who must be willing to carry any load or weight put on them. When one steps into the role of a leader, they will be called upon to make decisions and truly lead organizations — no matter how heavy the load may be or overwhelming it is. You must have the ability to make decisions, whether difficult or unpopular.

Theme 4: Gained while giving. In order to become a national volunteer leader, many of these interviewees started their involvement at the county, state or regional level, giving of their time and studying the issues. As the scope of their role expanded, the leaders spoke about gaining new knowledge, dealing with issues/topics they never thought they would be involved with (e.g. some ag policy issues) but also mentioned personal reward they gained back from serving and learning.

Theme 5: Leaders have innate leadership abilities. We hear the question: Are leaders born or made? This can lead to some really interesting and long discussions. But as identified by the leaders’ interviewed there were characteristics they believed matched a true leader. Some of the key characteristics were: knowledge, ability to listen, integrity, dedication, and ability to motivate others. A leader’s ability to use the characteristics impacted how they were viewed and followed.

Theme 6: A natural progression. The rise to leadership of the individuals interviewed in the study ended up being one of natural progression. They had not set specific timelines saying “I will be a national leader by a specific date,” rather their progression was fueled by their willingness to get active early on, take an interest in the industry, and aim to make a difference for the next generation.

Theme 7: Selected by your peers. Unique in the beef industry and agricultural membership- based organizations; leaders are selected or elected by their peers. Some of these peers may even be an industry competitor. This is greatly different than how traditional leadership positions in corporate management are selected. Once in leadership roles, agriculture leaders work with their peers to make industry decisions.

As you hear these results of how beef industry/agricultural peers viewed their roles as leaders, what do you think about? Did it make you think of a role you are serving and how some of these concepts could be incorporated into your role, or did it make you realize that the future of the industry will result in people’s willingness to serve.? This column is a brief overview of the complete research project, however, there are many points revealed in the study which can be of value to agricultural organizations seeking leaders and individuals interested in expanding their involvement.

For more information or a presentation on agricultural leadership roles, responsibilities or more information on “Inspiring to be an Ag Leader” (a new SDSU Extension leadership program), please email me at

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