When leading a workshop or visiting on-site with dairy managers, Jorge Estrada will often ask, “What percent of your time should be spent managing your workforce and what percent of the time should be spent leading?”

He gets different responses, with some people saying it should be 80 percent management/20 percent leadership, 20/80 or 50/50. Then, someone in the audience will say, “It depends.” Estrada’s face lights up, because that’s exactly the right answer.

“The situation will call for a manager or owner of a dairy to do more management or do more leadership — it depends on the person or the state (of mind) in which the business or the team is in,” says Estrada, CEO of Leadership Coaching International in Graham, Wash.

At least the people at his workshops know that some time should be spent leading. Dairy owners often get so caught up in the day-to-day operation or “putting out fires” that they lose perspective of where their businesses are headed.

Here’s why you need to be leader, not just a manager.

Makings of a good leader

The age-old question is whether great leaders are born or made.

Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies and provider of leadership training, says it’s his belief that great leaders are made. “That doesn’t mean that everyone can become the type of leader it takes to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the President of the United States or even an “x”-number-of-cows dairy business,” he says. Some people are better at developing leadership skills than others. 

There is a fundamental difference between being able to manage well and lead well. Someone may be good at executing tasks or overseeing the completion of tasks by other people. But that person may not be as good when it comes to explaining why the tasks are necessary or imagining better ways to do things.

Milligan makes an analogy to a ladder:  A manager may be quite good at climbing the ladder; a leader, on the other hand, steps back and determines if the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

Vision is what distinguishes a leader from a manager. 

“The leader sees things differently. He starts with his image of the future. This better future is what he talks about, thinks about, ruminates on, designs and refines. Only with this image clear in his mind does he turn his attention to persuading other people that they can be successful in the future he envisions,” according to the book, “The One Thing You Need to Know… About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success,” by Marcus Buckingham.

Indeed, great leaders rally people to a better future.

More important than ever

Having the title of president or chief executive officer may make someone “boss,” but it doesn’t necessarily make him “leader. Many bosses haven’t developed the right leadership skills. When that occurs, there is lack of vision and lack of motivation among employees.

On the other hand, if the business is fortunate enough to have a CEO with true leadership ability, it can move forward with confidence. 

It’s more important than ever for a dairy to have a good CEO, Milligan says. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Growing diversity among customers. More and more customers are asking questions about animal welfare or the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin. And, it’s not just the consumers of dairy products you have to please. Dairy producers must maintain good relations with their neighbors over odor-control and other issues. In many cases, a dairy producer’s “customer” base now includes the local community.
  • A rapidly changing industry.
  • Increased level of competitiveness.

Milligan says the importance of the chief-executive role is independent of farm size. In fact, it may even be more important for small- to medium-sized operations “because if they miss one opportunity or overlook one threat, they may be done,” he says.

There is a real question how long 100-, 200- to 500-cow dairies can remain competitive unless they identify their competive advantage — special niche, extraordinary productivity — within the industry, he adds.

Find the right wall

Someone can do a great job of managing a two-cow dairy or even a 1,000-cow dairy with heavy debt. But that doesn’t mean he will be successful in the long-run. The two-cow dairy is too small, for one thing. In this case, the execution of everyday tasks may be correct, but the overall strategy is wrong — the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.  

A good leader will find the right wall and then create an environment where people are inspired to produce.

DPS Dairy, which has several thousand cows located in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, brought in Jorge Estrada, the leadership-coaching consultant, for three days this past September. During that time, Estrada did one-on-one coaching with each of the senior-management staff members and conducted group sessions on team-building, communication skills and goal-setting. 

It gave everyone a different perspective — a chance to look at things from a big-picture standpoint rather than being so task-oriented, says David Sumrall, president and CEO of DPS Dairy. It got people talking very openly about some sensitive matters, which helped build trust. And, it got everyone to seeing how they could get the most out of themselves.

By investing in people, Sumrall showed leadership. And, while it may be too early to tell if if translated into a specific increase in milk production (or some other parameter), the next time Sumrall tries to implement his vision of the future, there is bound to be more buy-in and acceptance on everyone’s part. 

Management is not leadership


  • Planning and budgeting: establishing detailed steps and timetables.                                    
  • Organizing and staffing: establishing some structure for accomplishing plan requirements.
  • Controlling and problem-solving: monitoring results, identifying deviations.


  • Establishing direction: developing a vision of the future.
  • Aligning people: creation of teams and coalitions that understand the vision.
  • Motivating and inspiring people.

Source: John Kotter, professor at Harvard Business School

Develop leadership skills

There is a difference between being a manager and being a leader.

Managing is more about day-to-day tasks — the “actual physical execution of things,” says David Sumrall, president and CEO of DPS Dairy, which has several thousand cows in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. “Leadership is about positioning yourself to be out in front of the business and growing and developing the business,” he adds.

To develop your leadership skills, here are some suggestions from Eric Spell, vice president of AgCareers.com in Clinton, N.C.:

  • Attend leadership classes at community colleges or local universities.
  • Read books like “The One-Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard or “The Servant Leader” by Robert Neuschel.
  • Get to know your employees. Invest in them. Let them know that you care. Good dairy leaders develop people as well as they produce milk, Spell says.
  • When hiring a manager, look for with people-skills in addition to technical competence. Look for someone who has had experience managing two or more people.