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How does servant leadership work on a farm?

How to put this important business skill to work in your operation.

Davon Cook

August 8, 2022

2 Min Read
clipboard with servant leadership in text.
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You may have heard the term “servant leadership.” The phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay in 1970. According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a servant-leader “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong…and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Sounds good, right? But what does it look like in real life, on a farm? Here’s an example of trying to put servant leadership into practice.

Kevin is leading the office of a growing farm with multiple enterprises. It’s come a long way since Aunt Nancy was doing the books at night by herself. Now there are five people in the office, some working remotely, with operations in multiple states – it’s busy.

They are investing in systems and clearer processes to stay coordinated. Aunt Nancy is not always thrilled with the new ‘bureaucracy’ and not always following the new processes. She was feeling the growing pains of the ‘professional’ stage of the family business lifecycle that requires more structure. Kevin feels like he’s always correcting her; it’s both exhausting and negative. She feels like he and other family members are always telling her what she did wrong. It has led to some broader family blowups that are damaging relationships, not to mention amping up daily tension.

Change your mindset

While talking through the situation with Kevin (repeatedly), we realized his focus was on fixing the mistakes to perfect the process, not on helping the person succeed. What if he changed his mindset to focus on helping Aunt Nancy finish her career with positive family relationships intact, and recognized as a key contributor in a time of great change? What if he was a leader in service to helping Aunt Nancy “develop and perform as highly as possible” and helping her see the positive impacts of her work, for herself and the family she loved?

This mindset change didn’t magically solve all the problems. But it did help Kevin focus his efforts with a positive purpose to help a person he cared about. When he needed to address a mistake, he could approach it as coaching and training, not a frustration. Aunt Nancy could see the care for her as a person and respond with less defensiveness.

In what situations are you using a servant leadership mindset today? In what situations could you aspire to use the mindset?

Davon Cook is a family business consultant at K Coe Isom. Reach Davon at [email protected]. The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

About the Author(s)

Davon Cook

Family business consultant, Pinion

Davon Cook is a family business consultant at Pinion (formerly K Coe Isom). She helps families work well together in the business and navigate transitions in leadership and ownership. She works with farmers and ranchers all day every day and is passionate about production ag. Davon has been specializing in this area since 2012, partnering with Lance Woodbury at Ag Progress and K Coe Isom. She facilitates peer groups covering a range of strategic and technical topics, so she understands the issues producers are managing every day. Her perspective is shaped by spending ten years working in her own family’s cotton business near Lubbock, Texas, and a career spanning the ag value chain from McKinsey to ConAgra to consulting with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation throughout Africa. She welcomes comments, questions, and conversation!

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