Leadership development programs enhance local leadership in small towns

Many leaders are needed to accomplish tasks, especially in rural locations. Learn how community members benefit from leadership programs.

All communities have individuals who take on leadership roles to further community causes and create change. These leaders have desire, spirit and an unyielding aspiration to make their communities better places to live and work for generations to come.

When you think of a leader, you might initially think of a Fortune 500 CEO, however there are many types of leaders. Within our own communities, leaders can be visible or silent. Leaders cannot be identified by any one criterion. When seeking new leaders in the community, one must look at all demographics. If prepared and trained leaders are not readily available, communities should make an effort to help create local leaders.

A research study by Ben Winchester, Extension research fellow of the University of Minnesota, explains that, “Organizations in the most rural counties [of Minnesota] require an average of one in 34 residents to serve in leadership positions, compared with one leader required for every 143 residents of major metropolitan areas. So, the demand for leadership is up to five times more in rural counties than in urban areas, while the supply of leaders is diminishing.”

How can rural areas, regardless of location, attract leaders to elected positions and civic organizations when there are simply fewer individuals? One way is to create their own. Stop depending on the same individuals that groups call on, and enhance youth leadership education, mentorship and explore those untapped community members.

Retaining young people who will live, work and raise their families in their home communities are critical. Leadership development programs should be offered to local students who may indeed stay in rural communities or surrounding areas.

In addition, potential leaders could be assigned a mentor who is interested in leaving their leadership position, and one that the mentee is interested in holding. As issues arise that call for problem-solving or decision-making skills, the mentee will have opportunities to practice those skills with guidance, while learning position responsibilities.

In order to prepare new leaders, the gap between their current skills and what is needed for a leadership position must be narrowed. Consider past volunteer performance, employment experience and fit with the organizational culture to determine the best candidate. It is most important for potential leaders to continue the organization's mission and to support it's philosophy and culture. 

Finally, develop leadership capacity of seniors and retired residents in rural communities. Intergenerational learning opportunities among both younger and more senior leaders and community members could help develop and expand leadership potential.

While many of the skills and attributes leaders possess have been influenced by everyday experiences, others are a direct result of formal and informal leadership development training. You can help by supporting local leadership-training opportunities.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension offers leadership programs for both new and experienced youth and adult leaders who would like to develop or improve their leadership skills.

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