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Leadership: Country Guide Magazine Series: Seeing Eye to Eye

Most successful companies today focus and invest in leadership. There are shelves full of books and articles written on leadership, and yet it can still be a struggle to apply those principles on our farms and to decide who leads and how.

Fewer than one third of family-owned businesses succeed to the next generation. Our generation needs to take responsibility for that, and to learn to be leaders in training the next.

In today’s world, the family farm must be treated and recognized as a business. We need continuity, developing an interplay of knowledge between generations rather than comparing how we are different. We have to move beyond thinking “he doesn’t work like I used too,” or “when I was his age, I would do twice the work for less than half.”

Our young farmers are educated and eager to succeed. We must give them the chance to lead.

The most successful leaders on our farms are the ones who possess key traits that set them apart from others; they are collaborative and participatory; they mentor the next generation to succeed; they build a strong team and they have an attitude of gratitude. They understand where they came from, and what it took to get here, and they want that legacy protected.

Over the course of this series I will share with you my observations of how successful leaders demonstrate these skills to leave a lasting legacy. I am a firm believer that leadership is a skill that can be learned. The first skill and arguably the most important one is being collaborative and creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their own strategy and vision.

In my day-to day work with farm families, I hear the same things from owners about the next generation. They think they aren’t ready and don’t get the big picture. That’s where we need to stop and take responsibility to lead. If those thoughts are true, that’s because we have not taken the time to transfer our knowledge to them. We have not created an environment where they feel comfortable to share their ideas with us.

I worked with a family several years ago on transitioning the farm. I always think of this family because the leadership shown by the father was exemplary. This family had been planning the transition for a long time and just completed transferring their shares to their 30-year-old son, who is married and has three children. Already they want me to come back in 10 years and work with them on the next generation. An environment exists in this family where all ideas are shared – each generation is confident in speaking about what direction they have for the future of the farm because a participatory culture has been created that is comfortable and encouraging.

When I first started working with them, I was surprised on my first phone call with the dad. He was so clear about what succession would look like. This is rare, we usually have to help with that clarity. This man had not reached 60 yet and during this first phone call he made it clear he didn’t plan on farming a day past 60 years old.

This family had been the beneficiaries of a successful business and continuity plan that had started two generations ago, where the father intentionally guided and mentored the next generation at a young age. For them, succession started in their 20s and was completed by 30.

Once I met the son, I understood how the dad could be so confident. They had the same vision and were on the same level with all business matters, field to financial. When I asked the son about the history of the farm, he began to explain how his dad gave him those opportunities other dads wouldn’t out of fear of their child making a mistake. His dad would show him once, sometimes twice, and then say it was time for his son to try.

He learned to read a calving cow’s signs at 10 years old, and would either decide to leave her or help her. By 14, he was the lead herdsman on this farm, doing the breeding, feeding and milking all on his own.

That summer when mom and dad were away a tractor broke down. He told his dad they needed a new one and dad said they just needed one that worked. The next day he took the time to explain the financials to his son. And the following week, there was an auction sale and a used tractor was bought. He educated and then let his son lead.

If we want to grow good leaders for the future of our farms, then we need to consider how we mentor farmers today. We need to create an environment where they can gain confidence. We need to appreciate and be grateful for our children’s interest and ideas for the farm. How do we make good leaders? We believe in our children and appreciate them with opportunities to lead.

Darrell Wade is a Certified Family Enterprise Advisor and a CAFA Certified Farm Advisor. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at

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