Nationally-recognized speaker and ag advocate Michele Payn-Knoper doesn’t shy away from tough questions. If you’re looking for a straight answer on how to handle an issue, she’s your woman. Her blog is full of great tips for helping farmers and ranchers serve as ambassadors for their industries. In a recent blog, she offered the following tips on how to conduct yourself if you want to gain the respect of others to the point that they consider you a thought leader:

Be honest. It’s easy to pretend to be someone else in today’s social media-driven society; some people even thrive on building false profiles. Don’t be anyone but you! It’s also easier to say that we do everything right in agriculture — that farmers and ranchers never do anything wrong and that pundits are crazy. None of those is true; an honest conversation starts with the acknowledgement of problems across the agri-food system.

Put the industry as a whole before yourself. Call me crazy, but today’s regulations and activist agendas will impact you — your family, your bottom line, your right to farm — in 5 or 10 years. Are you sure that you don’t have time to step up and help those who are working to give you a voice? Of course you need to take care of home fires, but don’t do so at the demise of the big picture of agriculture.

Use your ears more than your mouth. Can you hear a question about agriculture or farming and really listen? Or do you automatically go into self-defense mode or come up with your answer while the other person is talking? I find many agriculturists are incredibly defensive when the conversation turns to food. A full 98.5 percent of the population never will live on a farm; they sometimes simply have a question. Thought leaders ask others questions and listen closely to the answers.

Keep an eye on the long term. Thought leaders are those who can look beyond their own businesses, understand global demands and consider the impact of policy, activism and markets on all of agriculture. If pork producers are having a major issue and you’re a dairy person, do you turn a blind eye? Or do you step up because of the implications for all of agriculture?

Keep passionate. Passion acts as a magnet. It propels a movement. It engages a community. Thought leaders have the ability to channel their passion for the good of the cause.

Be curious. Sometimes it seems that although children thrive on curiosity, adults bury it. Sometimes the simple act of asking “why?” can lead you down an entirely different path — a path of greater impact. And more importantly, it will help you discern what’s important to the people you’re trying to inform about agriculture.

Execute. If you don’t have the ability to put wheels under ideas and involve others in pulling the wagon, you don’t have a lot. Bright, shiny objects are fun, but they become dull over time and get put away in the back of the closet. Only those who can execute and grow ideas are true leaders.

Keep an open mind. “There exist limitless opportunities in every industry. Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier” said Charles Kettering. Many think North America’s greatest days of innovation are in the past. I disagree; one can always find a frontier desperately in need of thought leadership. Agriculture is ripe with those opportunities; look at the technologies, businesses, communities and techniques available to you now that didn’t exist five years ago. Be open enough to find a way to adapt them for the benefit of the big picture.

Stay tenacious. Producing food, fuel, feed and fiber isn’t an easy business. Weather works against you. So do agendas around a myriad of issues, often fueled by misinformation. But always know that one small voice, a single picture, or a tweet may just capture the attention of thousands and put a friendly face on farming.

Roll with change. You’re as young as you’re ever going to be today — are you really sure you want to spend your life complaining about change? Many reference their age in not doing well in social media, but I’ve seen 60-year-old grandpas outpace 25-year-old guys in using Facebook. Don’t let your age, position or lack of experience prevent you from adapting to change!

Practice humility. Enough to admit when you’re wrong and apologize when needed. There’s not a better teacher of this than being a parent. Humility is rare in those holding leadership positions, but the few who possess this trait can lead a movement as servant leaders.

Express optimism. If you don’t believe in a better tomorrow, why should anyone bother to follow you?

Be willing to have tough conversations. Is local/organic better? Do we still need subsidies? Why do you think your farming practice is better than mine? Do consumers have a right to decide how their food is raised? Difficult, but thought leadership is about leading the conversation, not reacting to it. It’s also about taking the high road even when others sink to the gutter.

Truthfully, I’d like to see more true thought leadership in agriculture. We all preach to the choir that we have to do things differently, so how about we actually put our muscle where our mouth is?


Michele Payn-Knoper, nationally known professional speaker, founded Cause Matters Corp. in 2001 to help people learn how to champion their causes in the business, not-for-profit, agriculture and nutrition arenas. For more information, visit