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Does your community need new leaders? Try knocking on some new doors

Arms of diverse group of people with hands up

More and more, a task of local leaders is to find the next generation of people willing to lead. This can be a challenge in rural Minnesota when populations are aging and smaller populations must manage a number of local government and non-profit organizations.

Research Fellow Ben Winchester sought to better understand the need for leaders in Greater Minnesota. So he added up the number of nonprofits and government jurisdictions, and considered the number of board and elected positions needed by these entities. Winchester, who is part of the Center for Community Vitality's Evaluation and Research staff, estimates that one in 34 must serve in leadership positions in some rural areas, compared to one in every 143 residents in major metropolitan counties.

In light of this, you'd think that most rural residents are asked to pitch in, but the 2010 Rural Plus Survey conducted by the Blandin Foundation shows that is not always the case. When asked, "Have you ever been invited to serve in a leadership role in your community," 41 percent said no. Older residents, those with high incomes, and business owners were most likely to say they had been asked to lead.

Research from Virginia Tech describes a circular problem when it comes to leadership. People who perceive themselves to be leaders are more likely to receive nominations to lead, and individuals who receive nominations to lead are more likely to see themselves as leaders.

Unfortunately, this dynamic can result in local leaders who are overworked, and local groups that are under-represented. How can communities break this cycle?

Nurturing emerging leaders

Untapped leaders are often unlikely to step forward on their own. According to Blandin's survey, 87 percent of rural Minnesotans said that they could "make an impact and improve local quality of life." However, those with incomes of $35,000 or under were the least likely to believe this was true.

Extension delivers leadership education to both existing and emerging leaders in Greater Minnesota. We are inspired by communities that, through the years, have invested in their communities' future leadership by tapping groups that sometimes aren't represented.

For example, since 1985, a group of individuals and organizations in Northwest Minnesota sustained a constant flow of new leaders through the Emerging Leadership Program. This program's unique focus is on couples (and some individuals) who are emerging as leaders in the agricultural and natural resource sectors. The nomination process engages existing leaders who nominate young couples and individuals.

Similarly, the West Central Initiative, a regional community foundation serving West Central Minnesota, has engaged directors of Community Action Councils to create a leadership education program for CAC clients and staff. These organizations provide a variety of health and human service services to the region.

"Sure, there are leadership programs," says Steve Nagle, Executive Director of West Central Minnesota Community Actions, Inc. "But the population we work with isn't included in those opportunities."

By investing in these potential leaders, the West Central Initiative saw the opportunity to create new leadership while helping CAC clients create a better life — for themselves and their community. Nagle sees it this way: "The most important thing we can do to move people out of poverty is to give them opportunity. Energy assistance is important; all assistance is important. But really escaping poverty is about taking control."

Integrative Leadership Programs in Worthington and Marshall, MN are sponsored by organizations concerned with including new immigrants in community life and in local economies. "We would like the (leadership education) cohort to mirror Worthington's demographics," says Toby Spanier, the Extension educator who has designed and delivered Integrative Leadership programs in these two communities. "You need multiple perspectives so solutions can work for the common good."

Ideas from communities

Below, we share ideas — gleaned from the work of our educators and partners — for growing new local leadership.

  • Compare your census data to your board rosters. Knowing who's not represented at the leadership table can be the first step in bringing new energy and ideas to the table.
  • Work within trusted networks to attract new leaders. Many groups or individuals have earned trust that may not be there (yet) for other groups. In West Central Minnesota, the Community Action Councils had just the in-roads the Initiative Foundation needed to tap new leaders. Retired Extension educator Cindy Bigger credits the Community Action Councils for their excellent nomination process. "The organizations that put this program together did their homework. They knew who to recruit, how to recruit, and how to remove the barriers to get those who they wanted to attend to actually attend."
  • Build on the passions and past experiences of the people you want to attract. Spanier did his research before working with immigrant residents. He learned that while Anglo individuals may participate for personal growth, those from other cultures may be more mobilized by an issue or concern. His programs recognize and incorporate these concerns — the well-being of children and families, or the success of businesses are just a few examples.
  • Invite people to get to know your organization. Do your community's residents really know what happens at city hall? At the police station? When you invite new residents to learn, and reinforce the message that community members are important to the success of local government, new residents know that they are welcomed into the community.
  • Build confidence by building skills. Everyone who has led a group knows how much there is to learn. Recent research published by the Community Development Society showed that participants who have lived in a community for a short period of time benefit even more from leadership education than longer-term residents when it comes to increasing their community commitment, shared future and purpose, community knowledge and civic engagement.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to earn the trust of new groups. One young mother who was part of the West Central Minnesota program called her town's mayor to ask whether he could visit her child's day care on Safety Day. She had just heard at the academy that "you might hear no, but call your elected officials when you need something." With just one call, this participant got a "yes" from a mayor who then recruited a firefighter and police officer to visit the day care with him. This mother was inspired by the accessibility of her town's leaders, and felt more confident in her ability to make a difference.
  • Involve local media. Reporters have a special talent for discovering stories. As they tell the stories of new residents, or new leaders, trust and connections can grow.
  • Reap the benefits. Graduates of programs like the Emerging Leaders Program, the West Central Leadership Academy and the Integrative Leadership program report that they are running for office, writing grants for their communities, and are using a more confident voice where they live and work. With more hands on deck, everyone wins.

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Author: Joyce Hoelting

Reviewed in 2012

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