When a person sets out to be a dairy farmer, they’re probably not doing it with the goal of leading a team of people. But that is an increasingly important role dairy farmers are taking on, whether they are leading dozens of employees or a small crew highlighted by family. How a boss leads their team affects the farm’s culture, management, and consequently, employee retention. Investing in your people with effective leadership makes a significant difference in how employees perform their jobs and how the business functions.
Good leadership can be hard to practice, but it shouldn’t be hard to understand, said Ben Lichtenwalner on a Michigan State Extension dairy team podcast. Despite the variety of books and teachings on the subject, the leadership consultant said the basis is always the same. It comes down to servant leadership.
This is the opposite of command-and-control leadership that might be what we think of when we consider the role of a boss: the leader is at the top of a pyramid, the workers are under them, and control flows from the top down. Lichtenwalner instead advised flipping that pyramid upside down to make a farm’s workers the most important group to consider.
“It’s a paradox; it’s a different way of thinking about it. But I always say servant leadership is authentic leadership,” he described. “At the end of the day, if you’re not serving others, you’re self-serving, and that’s not leadership.”
Lichtenwalner, who also spoke on this topic at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference, explained that to practice servant leadership when you’re dealing with difficult situations or employees, remember this acronym:
S — Selfless
E — Empathetic
R — Resolute
V — Virtuous
A — Authentic
N — Non-partisan
T — Thorough
“I don’t care what leadership style you practice; the worst employees are going to be the toughest to manage,” he admitted. But following those values can help change the situation and attract valuable employees in the future.
For example, Lichtenwalner said that instead of simply scolding someone who is habitually coming to work late, take the time to empathize and see if there is something causing the behavior. Rather than making the employee defensive, this helps them see that you’re on the same team and working through a problem together. Empathy doesn’t mean simply walking a mile in someone’s shoes when they tell you things are fine, Lichtenwalner continued. It means walking in the muddy boots they wear when things are challenging.
It can be difficult to prioritize those conversations when the farm’s daily operations must still be met. But Lichtenwalner likened avoiding the long-term conversations for short-term goals to depleting soil in a field. Short-term damage adds up and makes it harder to achieve results later on — in this case, responsible employees, great farm culture, and low turnover, which should be goals on every dairy.
“Nothing affects turnover more than your leadership,” Lichtenwalner stated.