Leadership and The Law of The Farm

When I’m not running workshops, speaking at conferences, writing books or playing music, I’m a happy farmer. A muddy, dusty, boot clad, straw in hair, grime on face farmer and I love it.

I’ve learnt a lot about leadership from farming. I’ve also learnt a lot about leadership through my several decades as a manager, years of extensive study and reading, and through the people I meet and the workshops I run as a leadership and management consultant.

I thought I’d put some highlights of that learning together. You might want to grab a cuppa, pull up a comfy chair and settle in for a good old read.

Enjoy! Oh, and by the way there is a test at the end so have some writing implements handy as well.

Let’s kick off with some differentiations. I’m often asked, ‘what is the difference between leadership and management?’. Well Peter Drucker (esteemed Management Consultant, Educator and Author), would say that management is doing things right and leadership is doing the right things.

Leadership is forward thinking and strategic. Management is here and now and practical. Leadership requires vision, management demands focus.

The name of my farm is What If Farm. The name signifies the opportunities, and progress, possible when you dream big. You know, what if we built a barn……. (fill in the dots). So, what if we put that leadership and management theory into the law of the farm. Let’s imagine I want to get some goats. Leadership would be determining where on the property would be the best place to house the goats, what preparation we might need to do (building shelters, ensuring fencing is goat proof, assessing feed needs, designing a new beaut goat obstacle course etc) and researching what goat breed would most suit our environment and our requirements. Leadership is the dreaming process, the thought process, the assessing risk and visioning the outcome process.

Whereas, for the goat project, management is about making sure the team have the correct tools, knowledge and skills to build the infrastructure and that the materials for the shelter and the fencing have been procured and will be on-site when the team is ready to start work. Management is the practical execution of the dream.

Leadership looks at the big picture, management takes care of the detail.

Leadership also assesses risk and considers potential challenges (after all forewarned is forearmed). Some leadership thinking in preparation for goats, might include things like, what food supplies do we need? Identifying any overlaps with other animals on the farm and what specific. new things we need to source, will the goats be able to paddock share with the alpacas? What’s our back up plan if they don’t get on? What potential risks are there (i.e. possible toxic weeds, ticks, snakes, etc)? Leadership looks at back up plans and back up plans for the back up plans.

Whereas management thinking is more around, do we have the skills on hand to build the required infrastructure? Do we have the materials? Will we need to recruit additional temporary labour to help with preparations? Do we have the skills and knowledge to successfully care for goats. What training does the farm team, my husband and I in this case, need to ensure we provide proper care for the goats?

Can you see the difference? Leadership is non-tangible; management is very tangible. Leadership is structured around options or scenarios; management is structured around skills and materials.

In a workplace, leadership is about where are we going? What are our upcoming priorities? What are our goals and desired outcomes? How will we know we have succeeded?

Management is about do we have the skills we need to achieve our goals. Do we have staff in positions ready to undertake future tasks? Do our staff know where we are heading? Are they on board with our vision? Do we have succession plans? Are we training staff in readiness, rather than offering catch up training?

Whether you are preparing to welcome new goats, launch a new legislation, strive to be a market leader or hit an ambitious financial goal, the leadership and management differentiation is similar and the importance of both is paramount to success.

What else have I learnt about leadership from the farm?

Well firstly, timing is everything. Just as the veggie seedlings do better when they are planted in the desired season, so organisational ideas will thrive when the timing is right. Many a great idea has failed because it was launched at the least favourable time. Making a bid for more money after the budget has been determined is not optimal timing. Launching a new training plan to deal with the back log created by a lack of skills, is a bit ‘too little too late’. Do you get what I mean?

And if we are using gardening metaphors. Well, planing in an unprepared garden bed is pretty sure to end in crop failure. In preparation for planting, we load the gardens up with ‘gardeners’ gold’ (aka alpaca manure – it’s the best thing for helping gardens to grow). We check PH levels in the soil and ensure that compost is well dug in. Skimp on the soil preparation and you’ll probably reduce the quality and quantity of the harvest.

So often I see workplaces fail to do the preparation, especially when introducing change. They try to introduce new processes without acknowledging or clearing any emotional or practical debris from the old processes. That’s like planting healthy new veggie seedlings in a soil depleted, weedy garden bed.

Leadership is about communicating the big picture and setting the scene (what seedlings are we going to plant and WHY are they the best choice now?), and management is ensuring that the team is prepared, informed and that concerns have been heard and responded to (management is on the shovel, turning the soil and clearing the way).

At this point I must confess that I was not born a farm girl. I grew up in a small village in England surrounded by dairy farms, but my family weren’t farmers. When I was 4-years-old, I used to hang out at a local farm all day. I know, insane right, some 4-year-old wandering around the village taking herself visiting. Times were different then. Anyway, this farm was run by a woman named Janet. It was a working dairy farm, and she ran the whole thing on her own. Right back then, all those years ago, I decided I wanted to be a farmer. The only drawback was, I knew absolutely nothing about farming – zilch, sip, zero! Well luckily knowledge and experience can be acquired.

It was to be several decades before I bought my first farm. In the lead up I studied. I remember buying my first alpacas. The breeder put me through an intensive exam over the phone and when I passed that (with flying colours I’m proud today) she visited the property to inspect the set up I had created. Only when she was satisfied that the correct infrastructure was in place, and that I had the required level of knowledge to care for these gorgeous animals, would she consent to sell me any.

Why am I telling you this? Leadership is about knowing where you are going (we’ve already established that) and management is about ensuring the people have the skills and the necessary infrastructure to get there (yep, we’ve established that as well). We can’t play catch up! Equipment, technology and staff must be ready before the task needs to be done (imagine trying to build the shelter around the alpacas, and the risk to them of there being no appropriate fences).

Yet, how many times do we see staff in roles for which they have not received adequate training or delays and frustrations arising due to systems not being finalised and fully tested in time for ‘go live’ date.

Leaders envisage and managers plan. When the two come together then the team is ready, and the result is more likely to be successful. And finally, remember, all managers are also leaders (the two roles go hand in hand) but not all leaders are managers. Some people show natural leadership skills irrespective of whether they have people reporting to them or not.

Do you have your writing implements ready? It’s time for the test:

  1. Do your staff have the required skills and experience to enable them to succeed in their current role, both now and into the immediate future, considering any changes predicted to take place in the next 6 months (are they ready for what’s coming)?
  2. Do you have a current succession plan? If you win the Lotto on Saturday night (by the way you will need a ticket, that’s also called preparation), is there someone who has the knowledge, skills and desire to step into your role? Effective managers have made themselves dispensable. It’s essential to continuity.
  3. Do you have current, two way, expectations agreements with all your staff? Are these expectations, objective, measurable, realistic, achievable and commitment to (by both parties)?
  4. Does your organisation and your team have a clear forward vision and are all your staff clear about what it is? Does everybody know where the organisation is going?
  5. Are your training and development plans forward focussed? Are you providing training in preparation for what’s coming or are you playing catch up?
  6. How often do we shear alpacas in Queensland? (ok that’s a joke question but you do get extra points if you get it right).

I offer workshops and coaching in leadership and management. My work is all fully customised (so we address your priorities and achieve your desired outcomes), evidence based and provides proven results. Why don’t you give me a call, I would love to chat about how we can work together to support your team to achieve great results.

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