The importance of farm owners as leaders is dramatically increasing. In fact, I refer to leadership, especially strategic leadership, as the new frontier for owners of dairies and agribusiness.

What, then, does this oft-used but seldom-understood word “leadership” truly mean?

Marcus Buckingham is one of my favorite leadership experts. He describes leadership as: “Great leaders rally people to a better future.” Let’s look at the words in this quote to better understand leadership:

“Better Future” — Think about the great leaders through history and in your life. Each defined a “better future.” Our founding fathers defined democracy. President Kennedy envisioned landing a man on the moon. Think of a teacher who envisioned a better future for you. Business leaders portray this better future by articulating the mission/vision for the business(in our case, for the dairy farm or agribusiness). “The vision thing” is the better future. Farm families have always recognized the importance of the “better future.” The difference today, with increased size and greater complexity, is that the “better future” must be articulated and continuously communicated.

“People” — Leadership is about people. Leaders understand that each person is a unique, wonderful human being. Leaders also understand themselves and their unique talents, skills, tendencies and challenges. Leaders recognize that the workforce is changing. Gen Xers and Millennials are much less willing to work at a job that does not have meaning. The leader works for the betterment of the group — the workforce — he or she leads. Note that our definition does not read “rally people to my better future.”

“Rally” — Compare “leaders rally” to “managers decide” and you can really see the difference between management and leadership. Rallying is about emotions: passion, inspiration, motivation. The farm leader’s responsibility is to evoke the passion of all owners, family members and employees to work as a dedicated team to fulfill the mission/vision — in other words, to create the better future! Rallying also requires performance. To gain and sustain a passionate commitment, the leader must continually modify and implement a winning strategy. The leader must, therefore, be much more externally focused; he or she must always be learning about the local, industry, national and global environment and identifying potential threats and opportunities.

“Great leaders” — Great leaders come in all sizes and shapes and have very different personalities and strengths. The one thing they have in common is followers — employees — who follow because they want to, not because they have to. Leaders with followers — again, employees — who follow only because they have to are relying largely on the power of their position. “Do as I say because I am your supervisor” is unlikely to create willing followers. Great leaders develop these committed, willing followers by articulating a better future, by developing trusting relationships and by producing results for the group as a whole.

Leadership Lesson: “Great leaders rally people to a better future!”

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.