Where are all the leaders?

New Zealand lacks good leaders, and while leadership courses are plentiful, Jacqueline Rowarth finds they are not created equal.

In Business6 Minutes

New Zealand agricultural businesses, from farms through to levy bodies, co-operatives, banks and other rural professional groups, invest money in upskilling staff. Upskilling in nutrient management, finances or animal health might seem a more obvious investment than leadership – but leadership is needed for the future success of the country. And there are many people champing at the bit to assist. Picking the right course and the right person has become an art.

A Google search on “leadership lacking in NZ” produces more than 11 million hits in less than half a second. Add “agriculture” and the hits are more than three million in the same time frame.

Across the ditch, the search produces more than eight million hits for agriculture. Change NZ to Ireland and 3.7 million hits appear.

In the complaint about leadership, NZ is not alone. Blaming lack of leadership is a common response to ‘things’ not progressing in the way anticipated or desired. The complaints often come from people who feel they have not been heard or included in the decision-making process. The big question is whether or not they have the ability to do a better job. What do they think is lacking? And do they have the skills to fill what they perceive as the void?

Responding to this apparent need, leadership courses have proliferated globally. Google produces 99 million hits for NZ alone. Some are directed at minorities (women and ethnic backgrounds, for instance), others at particular ages and stages, and some at agriculture. Most offer challenge, development and  skills. Some are also linked to a certificate which may or may not be accredited by a recognising body (e.g. a professional organisation).

Big bucks, poor returns

Increasingly, analysts are wondering if the global initiative to upskill people for leadership is working. It has been estimated that global organisations spend more than US$60 billion (NZ$98b) on leadership development but only 10% of corporate spending achieves positive results.

For NZ agriculture, a 10:1 ratio doesn’t seem like a good return on investment. However, improving the outcome is possible.

Researchers from Fordham University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government have identified the factors that create lasting positive change. Their article in Harvard Business Review in February reported that successful programmes have a focus on whole-person growth with opportunities for self-reflection and meaning-making (making sense of real-life events), followed by stress reduction. The value of short, intensive courses was emphasised, rather than those that cover a semester, year or longer.

Depends on the person

Another factor for success was the candidate. Though this isn’t surprising, the type of candidate was.

The research found that people who had the most clarity in their sense of self and who were highly conscientious exhibited the least positive change in response to development programmes. This means those with drive, who one might pick as natural leaders, are not going to benefit as much as those without.

For the people with a track record of leadership, it might be the networking that becomes the value of a leadership course. This is difficult to achieve online – it is shared experiences and concerns that build relationships and trust. Networks also allow exchange of information. With information and imagination, it becomes possible to create a vision that is credible and identify the steps to create that vision. Leaders then need the energy to get going and energise others. The latter requires an emotional quotient to understand the perspectives and position of those around them – the people who might follow to make the team.

The right person in the right course will add to the team, and with knowledge might also turn into the leader that is right for the time.

In her Kellogg report in 2016, Agmardt leadership scholarship recipient Sarah Bell wrote, “There is no doubt the agricultural sector needs strong, courageous, brave, skilled leaders with good judgement. Some of this currently exists, but a larger cross section of leaders with diverse perspectives need to display these attributes.”

NZ is a work in progress – as is the rest of the world. By homing in on what we are trying to achieve with the next generation, we can become the leaders in leadership in agriculture. Some might argue we already are – but maintaining the position will take careful investment.

Choose with care.