Seeking the best
what does it take?
By Jim Wadsworth, Program Leader, Education
and Member Relations
USDA Rural Development
he Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have
walked city streets, lantern in hand, looking for
an honest man. While honesty is one quality
cooperatives should seek in their leaders, there
are many others.
As the statement at right implies, cooperatives need strong
leadership to meet present and future challenges. But serious
questions arise. What does leadership mean for a cooperative?
What makes an effective cooperative leader? Precisely
what skills or traits are required? What type of people fulfill
There are many definitions for cooperative leadership.
These may include: having the ability to lead the board of
directors toward sound decisions; being loyal to the cooperative
and inspiring loyalty in others; being unselfish and trustworthy;
having courage to take on hard problems and the
integrity to stand by decisions; understanding and upholding
cooperative principles and concepts.
But do these definitions go far enough to enable members
and directors to successfully identify and choose future leaders?
To a degree. But other leader characteristics should also
Many would agree that effective leaders often have important
personality traits that are intangible, or that lie below
the surface. Indeed, there’s often something inexplicable that
makes some people leaders. The strength of their personality
be it charm or stature (i.e., they connect to people and
carry themselves well) in itself makes them effective leaders.
These people usually stand out from the crowd. They possess
traits that are difficult to learn, since they often come naturally
to such people. There may be some who try to “act out”
these traits, but they are usually seen as just that: as actors.
However, certain leadership traits, behaviors and methods
can be learned or acquired through experience, education,
training and self-study. The following are traits commonly
found among effective leaders.
Enthusiasm—Does the person show consistent enthusiasm
toward the cooperative, people and life in general? Is the person
positive and upbeat when challenged with difficult circumstances
and issues? An effective leader confronts business and
life with enthusiasm, isn’t a pessimist or a complainer. These
people are willing to take on tough issues with the same enthusiasm
that they display going about their everyday lives.
Listening ability—A leader listens to people and hears
what they have to say. The listening is sincere and patient
and shows respect for different opinions. A good listener listens
to learn, rather than listens only to await a chance to
talk. This trait inspires trust and confidence.
Think before speaking—Effective leaders are those
who have the ability to think things through before constructing
their words and phrases. Speaking very quickly or
off the cuff works for some people, but others often find
themselves saying things they didn’t actually mean or
intend to say. Leaders need to have the ability to analyze
information, and then form logical conclusions before
articulating their thoughts.
Stubbornness vs. flexibility—Leaders often learn when
to stick to their guns and when to be more flexible. This usually
takes experience, because every situation is different.
Effective leaders are those who have learned when to stay the
course in their opinions and decisions and when to be flexible.
Leaders must be careful not to be indecisive, stubborn or
overly flexible. Rather, they should use a blend of those traits,
depending on the situation. Consistency is key those being
led must come to understand and know the decision making
processes of their leaders.
Complete tasks—Leaders complete things when they’re
supposed to be done, or make sure that those responsible get
it done. Leaders are prepared for action and are able to instill
in others the need to be prepared. Completing work and projects
in a timely manner creates respect and allows people to
witness the ability and integrity of their leaders.
Take responsibility—“The buck stops here” is a slogan
good leaders adopt. They are willing to take responsibility
for negative events or occurrences that fall under their jurisdiction.
They don’t try to pass problems off on someone else,
but take them on. They also know how to graciously take
credit for success and even more important know how to
give credit to others when it is due.
Thought provoking—A good leader is able to get others
to think about things rather than just follow blindly. A leader
involves people by provoking thoughts through challenges
and by providing information. This trait often allows a leader
to build relationships that will endure and create commitment
needed to complete tasks.
Effective leaders will have many of the qualities or traits
outlined here, and probably some others as well. Often, various
traits compliment each other, giving the person even
greater leadership stature and ability. If some traits are lacking,
an effort should be made to improve in those areas.
Understanding and knowing what traits to look for while
identifying perspective leaders is critical. In addition, it is also
important to understand whether an identified leader will be
a good fit in a specific situation. Even though a person may
be identified as a suitable leader, it does not necessarily mean
that the person will thrive in all leadership roles.
Indeed, a person may be a tremendous leader in one situation,
but not a good leader in a different situation, such as in
a cooperative. These questions may need to be asked:
These and other pertinent questions must be addressed when
working to select quality leaders for cooperatives in the current
competitive environment. Leader-quality people should be
sought out, even though it may be a challenge to recruit them
because they are often very busy and lack the extra time to take
on additional responsibilities and leadership roles. Knowing the
traits to look for and the questions to ask can help identify the
best people to lead cooperative boards and cooperatives as we go
forward into a challenging and competitive future.
- How well will the prospective leader fit into the situation
given the circumstances? Will the leader be likely to succeed
in the environment?
- How well will he or she fit, given the other leaders and
- Will the person be liked and accepted by the other cooperative
players, be they members, directors or employees?
- Does the situation seem to be one where the person will
have an adequate opportunity to grow into the leadership
position and thrive?
- Does the person have the right educational background,
experience and knowledge of cooperatives and business?
- Is the person open minded about learning more about
being an effective director? Will he/she be willing to be further
educated, partake of training workshops and attend conferences,
- Does the person have the vision, values and staying power
necessary to fit the opportunities afforded by the cooperative?