Academic journal article Rural Society

Organic or Orchestrated: The Nature of Leadership in Rural Australia

Academic journal article Rural Society

Organic or Orchestrated: The Nature of Leadership in Rural Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

at recent decades, rural communities have had to take more responsibility for ensuring their own social and economic viability. The now well-documented shift in government policies away from interventionist and protectionist modes towards neo-liberal 'self-help' policies has forced rural populations to take greater responsibility for securing their own socio-economic futures (Argent 2005; Herbert-Cheshire 2000). This change has been driven by changes in the global market place and ideological changes in the wider population. To help rural communities adapt to the changing policy and socio-economic landscape, support mechanisms have been 'rolled-out' from all levels of government. One popular approach to supporting rural communities has been to enhance leadership within rural communities. This has been implemented by training rural dwellers in predetermined desirable leadership' skills that they can then use in their own communities. This approach is based on the understanding that strong leaders have an essential role in assisting rural communities and businesses negotiate and adapt to the changing socio-economic conditions (Sorensen & Epps 1996; McKinsey & Company 1994). Strong leaders help to build the internal capacity of rural communities and therefore enhance their longer term sustainability (Kenyon & Black 2001). Government support to enhance and strengthen rural leadership has been promoted as a strategy for supporting the long term sustainability of rural communities.

Political recognition of the potential role of local leaders in rural development started after the 1994 White Paper on Employment and Growth, Working Nation and the 1994 report by McKinsey and Company, Lead Local Compete Global. Both reports emphasised the importance of strong leadership within rural industries and communities for adapting to changing socioeconomic conditions. After the publication of these reports, a series of 'success stories' of regional renewal and revival (which highlighted the role of leadership) were used to develop a conceptual model of the ideal nature of rural leadership (e.g. the Western Australian Rural Leadership Programme 2002). This conceptualisation of leadership emphasised the desirable traits of the leader, for example, leaders were charismatic and needed sound project management abilities. Subsequently, rural leadership training courses have mostly focused on developing these desirable leadership skills in individuals (Davies 2005). Indeed, in a review of 48 leadership programmes in New South Wales, Andersen, O'Loughlin and Salt (2001) found that 94 percent focused on developing project management skills, with little reflection given to the context in which leaders had to operate. Also worth considering is that as the majority of leadership training programmes have focused on developing individuals' skills it follows that it is a widely held view that leadership can be orchestrated within rural communities, primarily from the actions of an individual.

Measuring the impact of such leadership policies for rural development is difficult given the breadth of influential variables. However, from a survey of participants in national and state based rural leadership programmes, it was revealed that the benefits to rural communities have been variable and limited (Davies 2005). Furthermore, it was suggested that leadership support measures were limited due to the narrow focus on the skills of the individual and due to the little regard paid to the influence of context Indeed, in recognising the ineffectiveness of leadership support measures and the need to understand leadership in context, and accepting the view that leadership can be orchestrated within a community based in the skills of an individual, Baker (1997) asked: how can we train leaders if we do not know what leadership is?

This paper seeks to address these issues through an investigation of the nature of leadership within Australian rural communities. …

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