Transfer of Rural Leadership

Authored by blog artist: Kayla Schnuelle

Why won’t millennials join our civic organizations or be on the Fair Board? What needs to change to have age diversity? Why don’t millennials attend evening meetings…are they at the bar? Why do young people think they need to go to the ‘city’ to do things?index

It is no surprise that millennials are the next generation to move into leadership roles and actually many are already leading. In Nebraska Millennials already account for 27.7% of the population. This info-graphic (also attached below) shows that millennials compared at the same ages and life stages to generations before aren’t much different from other generations in behaviors and priorities. It also shows that millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce by 2020. That is only 4 years away and there is some urgency in thinking about the transfer of leadership in our rural communities. If we don’t make this a priority in the next 10 years then knowledge and historical information will be lost and many things will literally fall of the map because of lack of leadership transfer planning.

Truth time: Are the majority of your civic organizations and city/county leadership positions held by adults that are 55+? Have you discussed how to transition these leadership positions and the civic knowledge? Are you making an effort to fill vacant positions with talented 20-40 year-old adults? Are you striving to have age diversity in your community’s leadership positions?

It doesn’t matter how you responded but it does matter how you move forward. I believe that the transfer of leadership should be part of a community’s strategic plan. I don’t have the research on this but I believe that the top predictor of ongoing community viability is progressive leadership. And it is also no surprise that communities NEED young and emerging leaders to take leadership roles and have confidence that they are capable of the job. The ideas, creativity and energy that comes from young leaders is contagious and can reinvigorate a community.

Good news! When I speak to existing rural leaders in communities, mostly baby boomers, there seems to be a shift of thinking. Where I had once heard negativity around this transition of leadership there seems to be a paradigm shift. The narrative is slowly becoming, “how do we keep our young talent” and “why don’t they get involved in our civic organizations.” This shift of thinking is amazing but without action it is meaningless.

My response:

  • Networks— young leaders need a network!
    • Network of support for ideas–if they join a board or you ask them to the table, you better give them a chance to share their ideas freely. You might not always agree but that doesn’t make new ideas wrong, just different.
    • Network of friends– you retain young families by helping these millennials grow networks of friends and colleagues in your community. As part of the community structure, this is also part of your responsibility.
  • Growth–There has to be opportunities to grow skills, abilities, compensation…etc. Growth is essential to the makeup of millennials and it isn’t all about money. I would actually make a bold statement that says it may be more about flexibility and professional development opportunities than it is money.
  • Experiences— We want experiences and the chance to make a difference. Give us projects or opportunities and let us develop the plan and execute it. We know how to work but we also use technology to work smart so allow us to use our own tools to create something.
  • Structural Change — There may need to be a shift in how ‘work’ gets done. Offer flexible work or volunteer arrangements so they can organize in a way that satisfies their personal lives.  If you want millennials at the table, ask them what works for them. We are busy and we strive to have work/life balance.
    • Are their some board meetings that can be done via Skype or over the phone?
    • Can there be virtual meeting options every once in a while?
    • Can the meeting be 90 minutes instead of 3 hours so we can pick up our kids from the babysitter?
  • New Thinking— Millennials are digital natives and most use this as a tool. With new leadership there will be new ways of thinking. I challenge you to create an atmosphere of idea generation and a welcoming space for new ideas. Not all ideas are good ideas but a safe space to share ideas is essential. If you don’t, they probably won’t come back.

From personal experience as a working parent that also commutes, it is nearly impossible for me to find time for evening and weekend meetings.  Logistics aside, it also is excruciating to sit through long drawn-out board meetings or weekend retreats that aren’t intentional and well planned. I would much rather be spending time at home with my boys. With that said, I also seek opportunities to engage in bigger, holistic projects that have a clear beginning, middle, and end where I can utilize my leadership skills and build something cool.

Bottom-line: Millennials have something to offer to your community, organization or network. Some will step forward and ask to engage, others will wait for you to ask. Either way, you have to be flexible and you might even have to allow a parent to bring a kiddo to an evening meeting. If you want them, you might have to create space for them!


millenials infographic



7 thoughts on “Transfer of Rural Leadership

  1. Really like your points on Network of Friends and Experiences. I think these two points are intimately linked – we forge and fortify relationships with those we do things with and this can be a powerful way to grow networks horizontally (with those ‘like us’) but also vertically (with those in different groups than we are).


    • Hi Karl,
      I agree that we forge and fortify relationships through networks but I’m also curious about how different networks merge and draw from each other. Maybe we can continue exploring this through ongoing Cultiva conversations.


  2. Thank you for adding to my understanding of Millenials. As we look to gain a younger perspective through focused involvement, we “oldies” do need to see through the myths and stereotypes.

    We do need to evolve to new thinking: welcoming change, networking more effectively, changing work constructs, adding feedback loops. Sounds like plain ole GOOD BUSINESS, something we should be working for always!

    Fun stuff!!


    • Terrie,
      Thanks for your comment on the blog. You bring a unique perspective because you have lived all across the United States and now you teach students via distance at Chadron State College. How has your understanding of millenials shifted through your work at CSC?


  3. In my home town of Spencer, NE I have seen young leaders become more involved in the community. For example, our fair board is composed mainly of people in their 30’s with a few older. I also have seen leaders as young as high schoolers who have stepped up to make a difference. One girl who was only 15 at the time, arranged a street dance with a DJ for one of the nights of Turkey Days (our hometown festival). It got people of all ages involved. During my “serviceship” in Curtis, NE through the Rural Futures Institute, I have seen many young leaders become involved as well. For example, the local Rotary was composed mainly of people in their 50’s. However, recently they have accepted two new members who are in their 20’s and have allowed them to take on leadership roles within the organization.

    I always love to see young people stepping up to make a difference in their small communities. It give me a sense of hope for the future of rural Nebraska!


  4. As a millennial myself, I definitely agree with many of these points! As part of my work with the RFI Serviceship Program this summer, I’m finding many small towns are behind on communicating in ways millennials are accustomed to, especially social media. Social media is perfect because many millennials use them, and they offer many ways for other users to publicly or privately share thoughts, information, and critiques. And best of all, most platforms like Facebook and Twitter are free, and they don’t take much time to maintain once they are established!


  5. It’s no secret that the millennial generation has a false perception. This blog post provides some data that proves that sentiment. Karl brought up a great point that I’ll mix in with what Jamie said. From my experience, it’s easier to find a similar cohort to befriend (horizontal networking) in a small town but even then, it’s not always easy. When Jamie mentions that Rotary club of elder citizens, it cuts out that cohort. Unless someone establishes that vertical networking, that club could just disappear. If I didn’t have any mentor to be a catalyst, I wouldn’t have a reason to ask about the club at all. This could almost be mistaken for apathy (which is brought up when talking about millennials) but really, it’s blind optimism. If nobody asks or tells, how are we supposed to know we should get involved or help?

    Great topic and very applicable!


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