Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Understanding the Importance of Leadership in Rural Communities

Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Understanding the Importance of Leadership in Rural Communities

Article excerpt


It has been argued that leadership is a critical element for the success of collective action in terms of community and economic development (Luther and Wall, 1998; Bell and Evert, 1997; Flora and Flora, 1993). Efforts to improve a location's quality of life requires a commitment from a strong cadre of individuals working collectively (Israel and Beaulieu 1990) and bolstered by those in positions of authority (Baker and Teaser-Polk,1998). Not all communities are endowed with people who are willing to step up into leadership roles (Sorensen and Epps, 1996). This is critical because leadership has been identified as an element for making collective action a success. This is especially true if the leadership is diverse, operates according to democratic principles, and "places the welfare of the total community above the needs of any given special interest" (Israel and Beaulieu 1990:182).

The social structure and culture of a community may preclude the emergence of leaders. It is a research imperative, therefore, to determine what contextual factors are conducive to the practice of community leadership and what interventions may improve the social environment, all in the hope of creating more and better leaders. Existing research on this topic is slim, but it mostly has focused on the urban areas and less so on rural areas (Rich, 1980; Ward and Chant, 1987). To fill this gap, the purpose of this study will be to examine how rural leaders emerge, the kinds of activities in which they are involved, and how they address the challenges they face - in other words, their "leadership career."

Given the contextual differences associated with the variation in population density, settlement patterns, and the attendant ways of life, we aim to expand the literature into a new direction. To do so, an exemplar rural community that possessed a strong core of committed and motivated leaders was chosen to serve as a case study. These individuals were interviewed in order to identify variables related to how rural leaders emerge, the kinds of activities in which they are involved, and how they address personal challenges. These individual accounts were used to develop a model which describes the stages each individual typically goes through as they become leaders and grow in their position. This model allows us to track the process whereby people enter and exit leadership roles.


The field of leadership studies is fundamentally multidisciplinary, where scholars from sociology to psychology to history to the humanities have argued not only what the core definition of leadership shall be, but also how it should be theorized in the various contexts in which it is practiced, what styles or forms of leadership are best in those situations, and what the effect leadership has on the performance of complex organizations (Kellerman 1984). Peter Northouse defined leadership as "a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal" (201:5). Similarly, Joseph Rost has described leadership as "an influence relationship among leaders and collaborators who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes" (1993:99). This influence is multidirectional and not coercive, which distinguishes it from power. Even if the intended changes do not materialize, that does not mean leadership was not present. At times, the process of engaging in change efforts is as important as the final product. This is particularly the case in communities of place. Robinson and Green make the distinction between "community of interest," defined as a group of people who have common interests but the ties are aspatial, and "community of place," defined as a group of residents who have common interests related to territory or place. In spite of the individualistic nature of modern society, many common interests and concerns still exist at the geographically local level (2011). Unfortunately, it is in this area that a dearth of research exists about how leadership is distributed and practiced. …

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