Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Futures // 1FUT1

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The Future Leaders in Extension


Keith L. Smith
Associate Director
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service and
Associate Professor, Agricultural Education
The Ohio State University-Columbus

Fewer Americans than ever before believe the future will improve their lives.1 With this pessimistic attitude, it becomes difficult to engender enthusiasm in a discussion of how leadership will improve lives in the future. The difficulty increases with recent media disclosures of leaders who have tried to make the future impossible for all of us to enjoy - the Iran affair, Wall Street, and even the institution of religion have fallen on hard times in the competent leader category. All of these examples of questionable leadership become unsettling when we're warned that the ideal leader should bring out the best in people and support the ideal character of a particular culture and historical period.2

Given this societal context, the question for Extension is: Who's going to lead us into the new future of Extension?

The Futures Task Force has devoted stirring language to the area of leadership with statements like: "Aggressive leadership and decision making must be provided at the state level to assure quality program content related to issues."3 To provide the leadership necessary for a positive direction in the future, a number of authors have suggested that a different kind of standard-bearer or some "leading-edge leadership"4 is sorely needed as we look to the future.

What Kind of Leader?

According to Mueller, the leader of the future needs to be a trumpet that doesn't give an uncertain sound.5 He or she will need to be a revolutionist, an innovator, not an evolutionist or traditionalist. Mueller goes on to say that the future will require the type of leader who can (1) initiate the structure necessary to elevate group expectations and show us how to master and motivate institutions and individuals within a complex environment, (2) balance artful leadership with management science, and (3) demonstrate both political and managerial effectiveness with charisma.

Zeleny maintains that the optimal working framework in which a leader for tomorrow will need to operate goes from being logical, rational, sequential, and quantitative (LRSQ) to being perceptive, intuitive, simultaneous, and qualitative (PISQ) in an ever-shifting continuum of thought.6 Merrill's future leader is much like Zeleny's; namely, one who's able to adapt and be versatile.7

These authors offer us some sound advice on the type of leader to look for in the future, but what about style?

What Kind of Style?

Mueller suggests that a free-form organization style is probably the wave of the future.8 Some key attributes of this style are:

  1. Organizational fluidity - work engagements and pursuits of objectives are often carried out in the task force mode spawned from core resource groups made up of the most effective individuals in the organization.

  2. A climate that encourages the freedom of individual priority setting and employee mobility.

  3. Peer systems of management with minimum hierarchical structure.

  4. An entrepreneurial climate.

  5. Unusual degrees of freedom and encouragement.

In Extension, we're doing fairly well in some of the attributes Mueller suggests. A climate encouraging individual priority setting with an increasing degree of freedom in such choices exists (plans of work). Our agents are generally satisfied with their jobs and their leaders (satisfaction with supervision), as recent research involving Extension faculty indicates.9 But much still needs to be done to align ourselves with Mueller's attributes.

Mueller's number one attribute, organizational fluidity, supports what the ECOP Futures Task Force is suggesting and what we're now calling issues-driven programs that are truly interdisciplinary. Another area that warrants attention is peer systems of management with minimum hierarchical structure. Does Extension need to cut down its hierarchical structure? Drucker says that by the year 2000, there'll be fewer than one-half the number of management levels there are today, and no more than one-third the managers.10 We're already downsizing-but are we downsizing the hierarchy enough? According to Mueller, we won't retain the leading-edge leader with so much bureaucracy.

The idea of an entrepreneurial climate should be discussed in Extension. The Futures Task Force recommended we convey to our publics the image of a contemporary, progressive, and forward-looking organization. Yet to a large extent, traditional thinking, and with it the attitude of "doing it like it has always been done," could keep us from attracting people who would help us do this.

Traditional thinking impedes innovative thought by creating certain blocks. Campbell indicates numerous traditional blocks, but here are three:

  1. Fear of failure - do we place too much emphasis on success and attach penalties for failure that inhibit taking risks?

  2. Preoccupation with order and tradition - yes, order is necessary but too much inhibits innovation.

  3. Resource myopia - we're only using a fraction of our talent.11 If we could allow more autonomy coupled with creativity, from secretaries, for instance, think what that could mean for our agents.

Application to Extension

Some suggestions based on Mueller's ideas might include:

  1. Organizational Fluidity. We need to get on with interdisciplinary issues programming, working with agriculture department heads and beyond. Let's not restrict our programming to state specialists in agriculture and home economics. Why not include state specialists in industrial psychology, sociology, business administration, and elsewhere, as members of task forces to work on problems faced by current and future clientele?

  2. Climate Encouraging Entrepreneurship. What are we doing to inspire risk-taking in Extension? What reward structure has been set up in the county, district (area), or state to encourage agents to be innovative? Pearson says that truly innovative organizations do five things consistently:
    a. Create and sustain a corporate environment that values better performance above everything else.
    b. Structure the organization to permit innovative ideas to rise above the demands of running the business.
    c. Clearly define a strategic focus that lets the organization channel its innovative efforts realistically, in ways that will pay off in the market.
    d. Know where to look for good ideas and how to use them once they're found.
    e. Go after good ideas at full speed, with all the organization's resources brought to bear.12

  3. More Employee Mobility. Let's not get so hung up on employee retention or be so worried about turnover. There are tradeoffs to the constant impact of new ideas that new employees bring. Maybe that's what we need right now compared to more "25-year" pins.

  4. Increased Freedom and Encouragement. This translates into less administration and more autonomy in the counties.


I conclude that the future can be viewed with optimism. We in Extension should not be among those who are less than excited about the future. We've been planners, developers, and agents of change in the past. I'm confident we'll be in the future. To help us turn this optimism into action will require properly trained, competent, and future-oriented leaders. As I have already pointed out, leaders have much to do with the attitude, productivity, philosophy, and performance of the rest of us. And if we're to become more innovative, creative, and visionary in our view of Extension, then our leaders need to regain their youthful energy and missionary vision.


1. Paul Hawken, James Ogilvy, and Peter Schwartz, Seven Tomorrows (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).

2. Michael Maccoby, "Leadership Needs of the 1980s," in Contemporary Issues in Leadership, William E. Rosenbach and Robert L. Taylor, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).

3. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1987).

4. Robert K. Mueller, "Leading Edge Leadership," in Contemporary Issues in Leadership, William E. Rosenbach and Robert L. Taylor, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).

5. Ibid.

6. Milan Zeleny, "Managers Without Management Science?" in Contemporary Issues in Leadership, William E. Rosenbach and Robert L. Taylor, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).

7. David Merrill, "To Motivate Others, Try Versatility," Industry Week (May 3, 1982).

8. Mueller, "Leading Edge Leadership."

9. Emmalou Rossano, Factors Associated with the Turnover Intentions of Ohio Cooperative Extension County Agents (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1985).

10. Peter F. Drucker, "The Coming of the New Organization," Harvard Business Review, LXVI (January-February 1988), 45-53.

11. David Campbell, Take the Road to Creativity and Get Off Your Dead End (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1985).

12. Andrall E. Pearson, "Tough-Minded Ways to Get Innovative," Harvard Business Review, LXVI (May-June 1988), 99-106. Leadership for the Future

Editor's Note: Two long-time observers of Extension reflect, in separate articles, on Extension leadership and management for the future in the context of research on effective organizations in the information age. Their separate analyses lead to similar conclusions.