A Return to Agrarian Leadership

In order to improve leaders’ value systems, we need to regain the values of agrarian society. Leadership expert Vana Prewitt argues that the current leadership theories are based on modernist assumptions and are out of date with leading today’s postmodern organizations. Given this dilemma, I advocate for a different kind of 21st leadership. 

 Agrarian leadership is defined as a contextual influence that has an impact on subordinates’ attitudes and performance by leaders who are both value and results driven. Agrarian leaders view their followers as critical parts of the socio-technical system. Therefore, technology does not drive the value system of society.

Before the Industrial Revolution, life was centered on land and labor. Life was simple for the leader in agrarian society. Rural living revolved around the land; owning it was equivalent to self-sufficiency and liberty. Although Americans lived in a tribal structure prior to the Agrarian Era (1650-1849), farming communities operated in a decentralized economy.

Agrarians exercised a strong spirituality and a deep respect for the environment. There was a genuine concern for neighbors and co-workers. Being a leader was a major responsibility. In fact, farmers were like heroes because of their hard work, contributions to society, independence, and moral standards. A man’s word meant something. With the transition from an agrarian to industrial society, untainted leadership was lost.

The Industry Revolution meant major changes to the American way of life. Before that period, over 90% of Americans lived rurally. Farmers influenced society. Between 1870 and1900, rural areas doubled and urban areas tripled. Farmers were cautious about these societal changes.

Industrial managers faced challenges such as generating new efficiencies while expanding operations. Chaos theory was in effect because those managers couldn’t control these organizational changes (both inside and outside). Factory managers lacked a process to motivate the unskilled (former agrarian) workforce. This era created new advances and new problems.

The Industrial Revolution forever changed agrarian society, primarily due to market economy and technology. Farmers were less self-sufficient and became “economic market” slaves. This created conflict because farmers and industrial society had different values. Farming became more productive, but fewer farmers were needed.

As a result of these advances, farmers lost their independence, family focus, and societal influence on moral conduct.  For example, some managers found factory workers breaking equipment. Consequently, managers tried to institute positive and negative rewards; these managers used conventional wisdom: “the hungriest man makes the best worker.”  Once again, mankind was moving away from his calling—the land.   

Therefore, advances in technology do not always equate to a better society. Many techno advocates would argue that technology has provided superior virtues. I beg to differ. First, technology doesn’t automatically improve society. In over 50 years, America has gone from rural to city and from national to international markets. Richard Critchfield, author of Trees, Why Do You Wait: America’s Changing Rural Culture, argues that these advancements have weakened our core values such as family tradition and work ethic.

Secondly, the disintegration of the agrarian code has destroyed our moral stability. Osha Davidson, author of Broken Heartlands, suggests that technology and the economic prestige of the agricultural system brought a host of social ills such as poverty, depopulation, and soil erosion.

Finally, we may consider agrarian lifestyle primitive. However, agrarian values shouldn’t be forgotten as good leadership attributes. We continue to advance technology by leaps and bounds while the values of society continue to disintegrate with each innovation.  In society, many leaders exhibit unethical conduct, pursuing wealth. Throughout American history, we see the consequences.

Do you feel that agrarian leadership is a term that will fit in the Green Economy? Can today’s leaders acquire, develop, or revitalize agrarian values in their leaders in the 21st century? If so, how?

 © 2010 by Daryl D. Green

20 thoughts on “A Return to Agrarian Leadership

  1. Can today’s leaders acquire, develop, or revitalize agrarian values in the 21st century? Absolutely, but values aren’t something you can simply read to have instilled in your daily life. Values have to be learned over time, and must be witnessed in action from someone displaying them to fully understand how to incorporate them into their own life. The Army has a list of core values that it teaches and drills into the head of every soldier that goes through basic training: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. The values are to be lived by, and create a strong, more dependable individual, and an even stronger leader. Violation of these values could lead to penalties such as extra work or loss of pay. Now, am I suggesting that everyone join the military to gain values? Not at all. Nor am I suggesting that firms conduct business like the Army. However, more formal leadership training for promotions (like in the Army) would be a great way to insure your future leaders know how to handle subordinates correctly, and also to insure your leaders know the correct ethical standards you want your firm to be viewed as. If you promote a salesperson for having the highest sales, do you know if he/she achieved those goals ethically? Do you know if he/she even knows how to manage others? My point is that, while I hate training as much as anyone, more formal leadership training would be an excellent way to ensure your future leaders at least know the standards you expect them to uphold for your firm. I would also suggest, though I don’t have statistics to back it up, that military personnel make for better leaders.


    • Landon, excellent points! I agree that values are learned over time. However, today’s organizations are in disarray as it relates to value based decision making (at least on the surface). In short, they are running out of time.

      How can organizations get an infusion of ‘what you suggested?’

      • Filling positions (especially manager spots) is a time delicate decision. However, HR managers have to incorporate more formal training with promotions into leadership positions. Your firm posts a job for a mid-level manager and you fill it based off someone’s resume and interview. But for all you know, he/she lied on their resume, and doesn’t know the first thing about effectively leading others. Send all new hires into a training course. Even a 1 week management fundamentals course is better than nothing. It would be easy to argue that it would be a worthwhile investment. Firms should do their due diligence, and ensure the members hired are given at least the minimum company cultural knowledge to succeed.

  2. The agrarian way of life has important fundamentals that I believe must be followed. The agrarian leader isn’t just a land owner but it is a leader of a family and community, an example to be followed. The traditional agrarian leader respects and is respected by normally a big family (sons and daughters, normally a lot of kids) and all employees, neighbors and the community. They have a great feeling of gratitude for what the land and God give to them. This respect, ethics and gratitude with the land is a little bit forgotten now a days.

    Today with the city life, some of the basics agrarian way of life are forgotten. People hardly have a big family. The leaders are more independent to decision making. That’s the big difference for the agrarian leaders. They need to work together to get a better price for their production between other services.

    A Green Economy request a lot of these principals to work properly. The necessity of work together and the respect and gratitude for what you can get with your work are the major aspects that we future leaders must follow from an agrarian structure.

  3. With all the positive things I can say about technology, I have to agree with the statement that technology have ruined our core values such as work ethic and family tradition. I think that every era has its own advantages as well as disadvantages, new era brings something new and unique to our lives. Unfortunately, our values change as well. Is it good or bad? I am sure it depends on the way we look at it; there is not a straight answer.
    What comes to the question whether today’s leaders acquire, develop, or revitalize agrarian values in their leaders in the 21st century, I have to agree with Landon. Values are something that people gain over a long period of time; it cannot be changed overnight. I think that this tough economy have affected management somewhat in a positive way; many people have lost their jobs and in order to be able to keep their jobs, many managers had to change their ways and work ethics. It was and still is a competition, if a manager cannot run a company with limited resources or be ethical to keep employees happy – there will be someone who will be able to manage that.
    Can we go back to agrarian structure? I doubt. But we should learn from examples and borrow principles to improve leadreship.

  4. I believe that Landon posed a very good point in that the values attained by the agrarians would need to be learned over time. In our new technology advancing age that we currently live in; the number of agrarian type people are slowly being converted away from their lifestyle. It’s hard for someone to sit idly by and watch someone reap the benefits are working smarter and not harder, while not attempting at some point to achieve the same results. It may be on a smaller scale but it does have to start somewhere. Those with a mindset that if its not broken don’t fix it; may have the best chance of sticking to their roots. I do however, think that the Green Economy could attempt to revitalize the agrarian values in our leaders, but do not believe that it will take off. We live in a dog eat dog world in which many leaders live unethically and perform cut-throat acts to stay ahead. We will always have the few, the proud, and the chosen agrarians who will stick to their values much like the hardworking farmers from our nation’s past.

  5. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat and a columnist for the New York Times, has indicated that the shift we are in now is of a similar magnitude to the 19th century shift from the agrarian society to an industrial society. The shift to green is influencing nearly every sector of our economy in one way or another. I found a list of characteristics that one show have to be able to strive or lead into a green economy. They are:
    • Self-reliant — pioneers tend to depend on their own wits and knowledge.
    • Passionate – pioneers are driven by their belief in something better.
    • Strength – pioneers rely on their inner strength to pull them through difficult times to a better day.
    • Risk-taker – pioneers are willing to take a chance, to try something that has no guarantee, to attempt something that may or may not work the first time.
    • Resourceful – pioneers are always searching for opportunities, finding a way to make it work.
    • Tracker – pioneers have the ability to find their way with a few key clues.
    • Early adopters – pioneers create a path that makes it easier for those who follow. Stepping into the unknown is exciting.
    • Resilient and persistent – pioneers don’t let unexpected detours stop them. They keep going to get where they want to go.
    • Ask and listen – pioneers who are successful ask those who have gone before them for input and suggestions. They also listen to their own intuition and pay attention to the signs around them.
    These are all very important characteristics that any good leader or manager should have.

    Ref.: Green Career Central. http://www.greencareercentral.com/public/294.cfm

    • Hi Griffin,

      Great list of attributes! Yet, the current organizational structure (in general) do not create an atmosphere for building this type of leader. If we are serious about ‘people being our most important resource,’ how do organizations stimulate these characteristics?

      • They do this by establishing a statement of organizational beliefs and values. Organization do not need to just have a statement, but live it with everything that they do. Lead by example. When looking for employees to hire they need to be people that believe in the same thing the organiztion does. If an idvidual is not following the beliefs of the company than they need to get rid of them because they are not going to take the organization in the direction that they are wanting to go in. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield stated, “a values-led business seeks to maximize its impact by integrating socially beneficial actions into as many of its day-to-day activities as possible. In order to do that, values must lead and be right up there in a company’s mission statement, strategy and operating plan.”

        Ref. http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/small/Bo-Co/Business-Ethics.html

  6. Yes, I believe that agrarian leadership is applicable to the Green Economy and should be encouraged and fostered in all industries. Furthermore, I would contend that agrarian leadership has never been restricted to rural farm life. While it is clear that some companies lack good values, I believe it as equally apparent that many industries are focused on good values and results. The ultimate goal of farmers and industry is to be profitable and expand. In essence, capitalism is a natural inclination that transcends all occupations.
    One example of big business embracing values and results is Wal-Mart, who states in part that their purpose is to “…operate with the same level of integrity and respect that Mr. Sam put in place. It is because of these values and culture that Wal-mart continues to make a difference in the lives of our customers, members and associates.”
    To instill strong values a company should place a premium on the mission statement and purpose of its organizations, as in the case of Wal-Mart. These ideas need to permeate throughout the organizations and be upheld by leadership in their hiring and promotional practices. Utilizing these tools to state the importance of employees will establish that they play a critical roll in the success of the company. Most companies realize the correlation between satisfied employees and strong values found in agrarian leadership.


  7. I also agree that agrarian values cannot be effectively established over a short period of time. I think values are instilled over a long period beginning in adolescents.
    I definitely believe that technology has played a role in moving society away from agrarian values. As technology as improved, it has for the most part, made are lives easier. Whether that has been a good or bad thing is debatable. If a manager can accomplish something twice as fast in half the time, they are probably going to choose that method regardless of ethical questioning. As society moves further and further away from agrarian values, the power of profit becomes greater.
    I like Griffin’s idea of the statement of organizational belief. Although prospective managers may lie on a resume or interview to obtain a position in the organization, if they are not adhering to the statement of belief it provide ground for termination. I also agree with Landon’s idea of sending all new managers to some sort of program to maybe strengthen values and a “refresher” course for established managers.
    When a economy takes a down turn I believe it is usually the managers with agrarian values who are left. They are the survivors

  8. To date, I personally am not familiar with the term “Agrarian Leadership” relating to the green economy initiative (GEI) which is currently underway in the United States and internationally. However, given a little more time. the term could be commonly used to reference the GEI and agrarian values. This only seems natural since the GEI is designed to assist governments and industries in growing their economies “green” by reshaping and refocusing policies, investments and spending towards a range of sectors, including more environment friendly clean technologies, renewable energies, water services, green transportation, waste management, green buildings and sustainable /renewable agriculture and forests. Modern farmers today are typically engaged in being good stewards of natural resources and producing consumer goods as efficiently and effectively as possible.

    In the Green or Interaction Economy, in order for business managers to be efficient and effective leaders, they will have to exhibit 3 major competencies: Interactive Vision – seeing execution as a network of interactions; Interactive Timing – being able to diagnose and respond to interaction opportunities and problems at the right time; and Interactive Skill – being able to lead the interaction effectively once he/she knows which interaction to highlight with a given group at a given moment.

    Reference Sources:

    United Nations Environment Programme; The Green Economy Initiative; http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy.

    The Interaction Economy; Guruwitz, Edward, Connolly and Mickey; http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p189242_index.html

  9. Very good points! I am enjoying the dialogue.

    Actually, agrarian leadership is a concept I developed during the class. I can’t find any information on it in my initial research. I am developing a paper as a result. Perhaps, it is a concept to develop and add to the body of work.

    As you can see, everyone can grow and develop in this process…if it is a chosen path.

  10. Agrarian values still continue to influence the youth of today in the Future Farmers of America program. The Future Farmers of America program is committed to teach today’s students how to be a leader. At my school the agriculture education department teaches a class fully dedicated to leadership called Leadership Communications. In this class students learn different styles of leadership and how to be an effected leader. At the last national convention the theme was Step Up and Stand Out. Students are encouraged to show integrity and be proud of who they are. And in the process influence their peers to follow suit. Throughout the year the National and State FFA organizations sponsor workshops and classes for students to take that teach them agrarian leadership.

  11. i think now is the perfect time tio infuse agrarian leadership into society beacause 1) of the greater concentration to going green and living healthy natural farming of before the indutial age will become more popular and 2) the discovery of the many unethival ceo’s, the almighty dollar will cease to be the only motivator and managers will relize that thier company can not peform efficiently without employess. technology has stripped the personilization aspect of the leader, they dont have to be in the same room to repremand or congradulate you that can now be done by email. meetings can be done by video conferencing leaving workers feeling almost robotic in nature

  12. Do you feel that agrarian leadership is a term that will fit in the Green Economy? Can today’s leaders acquire, develop, or revitalize agrarian values in their leaders in the 21st century? If so, how?

    I feel that agrarian leadership is a term that could only be used for one aspect of the Green Economy. This would be the love of the land. Agrarians were concerned with much more than the earth. They had a strong sense of family values and were very God fearing people. The Green Economy movement has been proven somewhat beneficial for our environment, but it has not demonstrated any examples of caring about family values or God. Leaders can go back to the agrarian leadership style but would have to utilize today’s technology. Agrarian leadership does not have to deal with doing things using certain tools. It deals with a belief system and mind set. This can always be instilled in others if directed appropriately by issuing harsh penalties for dishonesty (i.e. zero tolerance) and unethical behavior (pay cuts or being discharged).

  13. Indeed, Agrarian Leadership Values are a perfect fit with the Green wave because it regards our (1) fellow man & (2) the environment, both of which are attributing elements to the development of values. It is these values that shape our attitudes and behaviors. Hence, “Our conscience will stand guard over the values put into our moral nature.” Keeping us mindful of our treatment to the (2) key agents needed for survival. According to Mary Summers of Yale, “Alliance was conscious strategy of much agrarian leadership” this era saw some of the highest levels of peace prosperity & respect for moral values; this collectivism ideology recognized humans as a vital source of production, directly in line with the Behavioral school of thought , which fully recognizes the direct correlation between attitudes and performance. This increase in technology has brought along an automated vibe and an impersonal aura with no sentimental value, but it has also allowed for mass production, enabling America to remain viable in a global market. Thus it is all the more imperative for 21st century leaders to acquire these ALV’s & lead their companies as the iconic figure to emulate.

  14. She is a graduate of Yale and professor at Prninceton. Her emphasis is to express the importance of returning to the stronger individual to arrive at a more effecient “WE”.

    Putting Populism Back in: Rethinking Agricultural Politics and Policy
    Mary Summers
    Agricultural History, Vol. 70, No. 2, Twentieth-Century Farm Policies (Spring, 1996),pp. 395-414

    Published by: Agricultural History Society
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744544

  15. Interesting to find this thread, still a current topic of concern. The workforce of the future will be self-directed, autonomous, consistently driven to excel, and employee owners. Why stuff money into the hands of a middle man when technology has replaced his purpose?

    Long ago, I could not find 10 people who shared my values and vision of the world. Through new technologies, I can find them, talk to them, debate and negotiate, and sign contracts with them. Why would I pay some high school educated clerk to manage my affairs so his boss can get rich?

    Co – ops. Collectives. Guilds. Go back to where we were right with the world, in balance with ourselves and nature. What we created this last century is an abomination.

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