Think about great leaders past and present. Now think about what each accomplished. Almost certainly, each great leader is remembered for creating change. 

To drive this point home, try to name a great leader who is known for maintaining the status quo. I am pretty certain you cannot name even one. 

The reason you cannot is that leadership is about change. This conclusion is equally important whether you are the owner/leader of the farm or a manager who is supervising employees. In either case, you are a leader — and leadership is about change. And while there aren’t very many ways to gauge how much your employees trust you, one good test is to lead them through a change. 

(It doesn’t have to be a big change, though we typically think of on-farm changes as big — an expansion, adding acreage or hiring a new herd manager. In fact, we would be remiss if we forgot about the day-to-day changes that are required to continually improve your farm’s operations.)

But let’s get back to this leadership test idea. To successfully implement change, it is important to understand how people — in this case, your employees — react to change. Especially pertaining to changes at work, most people go through a four-step process as follows:

1.    Denial. The more the person sees a change as negatively impacting them, the longer they may remain in denial. Denial can be very powerful and seemingly irrational at times. As a leader, it is crucial that you understand that this is only a step. When people are in denial, let them be. This step will pass, usually very quickly.

2.    Resistance. As they move into resistance, usually quickly — an hour, a day, maybe more for a major change — it is time to listen and to be empathic… to walk in their shoes. Let them know you can see the issues from their point of view, and that you are open to their concerns.

3.    Exploration. They are now warming up to the change and are logically considering how it will impact them. Now is the time to solicit their opinions in how best to move forward.

4.    Commitment. Let’s go! The person experiencing the change is ready for the change and committed to it. Now is the time to ask for their help to implement the change and perhaps help others get to this step.

The time it takes to move through the four steps will depend upon the magnitude of the change and the perception of the person involved in the change as to whether it is good or bad for him or her personally and/or professionally.

Engaged employees who feel that you have led them confidently and adeptly in the past will go through these steps quickly. This is a direct result of the high level of engagement and trust between a leader and those being asked to change. Of course, leading your employees through change is more than an exercise to gauge their trust in you — it’s ultimately about what’s best for your operations. And the greater the engagement and the trust level, the faster they commit — resulting in a more immediate, positive result. 

Leadership Lesson: Your employees’ trust can be measured by how quickly they adapt when you lead them to a change they must make.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at or 651-647-0495.