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Opinion: Leadership through understanding

As farmers, are we ready to look at the unintended consequences even when our intentions are for the best?

It can be transformative when we ask the question “what is it you need?” of our staff and our clients. It changes our perspective of our role, and it changes our business purpose.

Sometimes the way we run our farms is similar to the way we like to strap our privilege firmly on our backs and think that because we are citizens of the so-called “First World,” we can bring help and hope to all those with less.

We think we can relieve suffering, and through our efforts, we can enable other people to have better lives.

This may be true to a point, but our ways may clash with their culture. And we also have to take into account that government stability and political will mean different things in different countries.

How does this relate to us as leaders on our farms and in agri-food and agri-tech?

It starts with the recognition that it isn’t enough to have a good intention. All kinds of factors can enable or disable it. We may have the good intention to sell pasteurized milk in plastic bottles to a country which lacks refrigeration or waste disposal. I have personally seen this good intention littered along the Pan American Highway, and we all know of similar stories.

We may desire to educate children and build a school in a place where there is no mandatory school age and neither the money to pay the teachers or the ability to buy the books that are needed. I have seen this globally.

There may be a desire to teach our way of farming in places where it may not be the best way forward, and I have been witness to the destruction of several savannahs because of it.

In our rush to speed up their production we may in the long term jeopardize it. As an agriculture focused on yield, we may have inadvertently supported the elimination of seed diversity and created secondary problems. For example, there is a measurable increase in malaria in those risk areas where the farming has changed to a corn monoculture. The larger seed head provides cover for more mosquitoes: An unintended consequence.

Many of these good intentions come from our wanting to solve the immediate problem and then get back home. This however, is not leadership.

Leadership is the art of appreciating all the points of intersection and all the intended and unintended consequences. It is a consultative process that invites the actors and the support systems to fully engage and appreciate the effect of any proposed action both in the short and long term. It is driven by the desire to genuinely allow for long-term solutions.

The process is tough and often it has to be repeated because it fails at the first point, which is to ask the recipient what it is they would see as a solution. While we are busy putting together tractors for which there will not be fuel or parts, the farmer really just wants a wheelbarrow.

As another example, in our own country we may focus on getting more women elected to political positions. But that may not be what women want in the Third World, where they may say they need contraception and financial literacy so they can grow into leadership roles. It is, after all, their journey.

We need to look at our own thinking. We can’t assume that what we want is what they should want too. We have a love of iron, and we might assume that the solution for a farmer in another country has got to involve some machinery.

Certainly this can be true, but it may not be, and it may create further stress and financial loss. The profit is made by the manufacturer and the NGO but little has been done to empower the citizen who simply needs that wheelbarrow.

Leadership is sensitive to both the intended and unintended consequences, so the natural leader is always willing to take the risk, ask the questions and to take the time needed to look at the long term.

They lead with a purpose that is shared with their teams. One team may find the appropriate wheelbarrows while another may look at aspects of delivery and another at equal distribution and a fourth finds a way to store spare wheels in the different regions.

Most importantly, all will weigh in on the gifting of wheelbarrows in a way which preserves the dignity of the farmer.

The wheelbarrow does not immediately solve the issue of poverty nor does it supply markets, but it does give the farmer a beginning and may unintentionally relieve the work load of the females in the family who may have been the mode of transportation. It may also be the first step of many towards financial independence.

As people, we all strive to do “good things” in our communities but the challenge is to lean into long-term solutions based on the needs of those whom we are serving. Leading this way is tougher, requires stronger support networks and leaves one vulnerable to attack.

The outcomes may also be less measurable in the short term. But it is important to team up with those who are on the ground to ensure delivery, accountability and presence.

Natural leadership is executed through compassionate business models that appreciate diverse perspectives. They also look for the intersections that may result in intended and unintended consequences while preserving dignity and igniting the possible.

Similarly, back at home, it is transformative when we ask the question “what is it you need?” of our staff and our clients. It changes our perspective of our role, and it changes our business purpose.

Our farmers and our agricultural industries have much to offer our communities and the world. The respected leaders within them have had the courage to ask the tough questions, act upon the needs of the people, and guide the process over the long term.

They know that just as they may be changing the world for the better, the world is also challenging and changing them.

About the author


Brenda Schoepp

Brenda Schoepp is completing her MA in global leadership and is an international mentor, author and speaker. She may be contacted through her website



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