Education opportunity can help fill the rural Minnesota leadership gap

 By Mike Liepold, University of Minnesota Extension 

How many people does it take to run your small town? How many people are available to fill that need?

Starting with these simple questions, University of Minnesota Extension conducted a study in 2010 that revealed two significant trends in rural Minnesota leadership: 1) The number of community organizations, and thus the number of leadership positions, is increasing, and 2) The number of people who are able and prepared to serve as leaders is declining.

According to study author Ben Winchester, Extension research fellow, organizations in the most rural counties require an average of one in 34 residents to serve in leadership positions, compared with one leader required for every 143 residents of major metropolitan areas. So, the demand for leadership is up to five times more in rural counties than in urban areas, while the supply of leaders is diminishing.

Clearly, there’s a leadership gap in rural Minnesota — a gap made more problematic because the issues facing Minnesota’s rural communities are more complex than ever. We have many people in rural areas who are capable of becoming effective leaders. But it won’t happen overnight.

As an Extension educator and program leader for the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) Program, I have taught leadership for more than a decade. I think we need two key things to close the leadership gap:

New skills for current leaders. Successful leaders in rural Minnesota must think about the problems they face in new ways. Today, leaders need additional skills and new problem-solving frameworks in areas such as dealing with complex problems without easy answers, facilitating group decision making, and engaging citizens in issues that affect them. They also need to know more about themselves, such as their preferred leadership style and how they deal with conflict.

A more welcoming approach among current leaders to new community members. In another study, Winchester documents the in-migration of new, well-educated, 30-to-49-year-olds to rural Minnesota communities. These newcomers are often well-positioned to assume leadership roles in small towns, but rural communities must take steps to engage them.

If you live in a small town, you can help close the leadership gap by recruiting new leaders, rather than going back to the same leaders time and again. You also can help by supporting leadership training opportunities.

In addition to MARL, which is offered by Extension in partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University, Extension offers a variety of leadership education opportunities, often in partnership with other groups and organizations.

MARL is currently taking applications for its two-year training experience. The program includes nine seminars across the state and in Washington, D.C., as well as an international study tour. For more information and an application, visit

To learn more about Extension leadership training in general, including standard and customized offerings, visit

Mike Liepold is a leadership and civic engagement educator with University of Minnesota Extension.