Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA7

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Building Community Leadership

In response to the need for leadership development...The program was designed to help develop or expand the leadership base in counties and equip local leaders with skills to manage and direct change in their own towns and cities.

Christine A. Langone
Assistant Professor
Extension Education
College of Agriculture
University of Georgia-Athens

Extension has been looked on as a source of knowledge and expertise for rural communities. As these communities now face complex issues outside the traditional arenas for agriculture and home economics, however, the role of Extension has been questioned. This study of Georgia's Community Leadership Program shows that county Extension programs can serve as a viable resource in helping communities face social and economic change. The need for leadership in communities, and especially for rural communities in the South, has been well-documented.1 At the national level, Extension has emphasized the importance of leadership development and Extension's role in providing training in this area.

In Georgia, the critical need for leadership development was identified through an Extension-sponsored, comprehensive local needs assessment in which communities analyzed local resources and developed plans for the future. A key finding was the need for a broader, better-trained leadership base. This finding was supported by state leaders who publicly stated that unified, committed local leadership is crucial to rural development.2

Community leadership has a particular arena and focus. A workable definition for discussing community leadership and program development has been formulated by the National Extension Task Force on Community Leadership:

Community leadership is that which involves influence, power, and input into public decision-making over one or more spheres of activity. The spheres of activity may include an organization, an area of interest, an institution, a town, county or a region. Leadership capacity extends beyond the skills necessary to maintain a social service and/or activities organization. The leadership skills include those necessary for public decision-making, policy development, program implementation, and organizational maintenance.3

This definition suggests the need for application of skills through involvement in local decision-making and action toward community goals.

Community Leadership Training

In response to the need for leadership development, the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service initiated its Community Leadership Program in 1986. The program was designed to help develop or expand the leadership base in counties and equip local leaders with skills to manage and direct change in their own towns and cities. This county-based program operated with co- sponsors including county Extension, local Chambers of Commerce, boards of commissioners, and other groups interested in community leadership development. The program provided both an educational component and a forum for leaders to discuss current issues.

The 12-week leadership program consisted of three units of 30 instructional hours. Class sessions included a combination of lectures, audiovisual media, small group and panel discussions, individual and group assignments, special projects, and informational tours. Instructors were state Extension specialists with expertise in leadership development, group dynamics, conflict management, problem solving, communication, managing change, and community and economic development.

In addition to learning theory, the application of skills through case studies, simulations, and community planning was stressed. During many class sessions, participants discussed and prioritized their individual and community concerns. By the last class, participants had formulated an action plan, enabling them to put their skills to work.

Successful programs required considerable local input. County Extension agents served as local program coordinators and also as active participants in the classes. The agents built initial support for the program and identified co-sponsors. The co-sponsoring groups then selected a special advisory committee of local leaders to help with the program by seeking donors, selecting participants, and performing managerial tasks.

Participants were selected on their potential for developing, continuing, or broadening leadership skills in the county. Each class included members representing various geographical areas and the backgrounds, occupations, group affiliations, races, genders, and age groups of people in the county.

Assessing Impacts

This study rested on the assumption that the ultimate impact of the Community Leadership Program would be reflected primarily in the ongoing leadership activities of its graduates since the program's inception. The impact assessment included data from 76 counties that had participated in the Community Leadership Program between 1986 and 1991. The counties represented each area of the state and varying types of communities. The population of participating counties ranged from 5,700 to 56,000, with 68% of the counties below 20,000. A total of 2,648 leaders had participated in the program in those counties.

To obtain impact data, the state project coordinator developed a questionnaire that was distributed by district agents to the participating counties. One questionnaire per county for 74 of the 76 counties was completed jointly by county directors and agents actively involved in the program. The questions were developed based on interviews, informal conversations, and participant observation with program planners and participants. A total of 23 open- and close-ended questions asked the county directors and agents for information about activities such as the formation of an alumni group, formation of ad hoc or ongoing committees to address specific local concerns, graduates who have run for elected office, sponsorship of repeat leadership classes, and involvement in special activities and other areas of impact. In responding to these questions, the agents and county directors also reported responses and comments they'd received from participants.

Due to the open-ended nature of 11 questions, qualitative analysis methods of inductive analysis4 and constant comparison were used to categorize and code statements.5 Totals and percentages were used on questions that asked for quantitative reporting, resulting in descriptions of program impact experienced by the agents involved.

Impact Areas

Analysis of the responses from agents and those they reported from participants showed that the Community Leadership Program had a positive impact on the counties, residents, and local Extension Service. A positive program impact was found in the areas of networking, the role of Extension, creating a unified spirit, and involvement. While these categories were distinct for purposes of analysis and reporting, the descriptions and quotations show the interrelatedness among categories.


As a result of working together in the community leadership classes, networking occurred across many groups. Interaction during classes increased participants' knowledge of local human resources, communication, and appreciation for varying perspectives on issues. Participants told agents that they now had many resource people to call on for committees, community activities, or information. While sharing their ideas, participants learned others had similar concerns and interests.

Participants also discovered that differing perspectives could contribute positive solutions. For example, people in recreation became aware of concerns felt by health care professionals. Those in education learned from the business leaders how the whole community is affected by economics. Community leadership classes "helped young leaders understand the values and actions of older leaders and how to work with, not against, each other."

Role of Extension

Another effect was increased visibility for local Extension staff and an expansion of their role in the community. The leadership classes brought county Extension agents together with the local government, business community, diverse social and civic organizations, church groups, and school personnel. Participants said the program gave them "a broader community perspective as educators and leaders." Groups and individuals became "enlightened" about the resources Extension had to offer through the local office. As one county agent said, "Be it blessing or curse, I am now a community resource person. Within this highly respected group, our office is well-known and called on."

The participating Extension agent gained recognition as a knowledgeable resource in community development. Now, county agents are increasingly being called on to provide leadership training, community demographics, rural development planning, and management of community events.

Unified Spirit

A common theme expressed by most respondents focused on the unified spirit developed among community leaders. Although the classes brought together diverse groups, the result was often a cohesive cadre of leaders with the common goal of community improvement. As one participant stated, the leadership group has developed "A team atmosphere! A support group!" Others described this development as "community pride and togetherness," "a can-do spirit," and a feeling "we have got to work together." One graduate said: "We're a molding together of individuals from different parts of the county with common goals. We put aside selfish interests. We've become a group that's ready to work to make our county the kind of place we want it to be."


This category was expressed two different ways. The first derived from statements expressing the increased level and diversity of involvement; the second related to specific activities and examples of participation.

The community leadership classes made people "feel responsible for what goes on," thereby acting as a catalyst for goal-setting and action. A general feeling of "things getting done" was repeatedly expressed. Also, a broader range of community members became involved in leadership activities. One agent stated the classes "brought some hesitant leaders out of the background to assume leadership roles."

The application of leadership skills is another sign of involvement. Each county devised a future action plan. These plans typically involved forming alumni groups, sponsoring leadership classes, forming task forces or committees to address local issues, or using skills in existing leadership roles. While the total list of activities is too lengthy to report, the following examples highlight typical local activity.

Thirty-six (47%) of the county Community Leadership Programs formed ongoing alumni groups for the purpose of addressing issues in the county. Thirty-seven counties (49%) sponsored second leadership classes for community leaders or targeted audiences, such as youth or agribusiness. These classes have generally been taught using local resource people.

Participants in a number of counties have formed task forces or organizations to address specific concerns, such as drug abuse, illiteracy, land use planning, or water quality. Class members in several counties formed a Chamber of Commerce, while programs in two counties resulted in the merger of separate city chambers into one countywide body. In another county, five alumni reactivated the land use planning commission by negotiating with elected officials who initially opposed such a board.

Leadership classes motivated participants to become active in local and state affairs. More than 100 program graduates have run for political offices from county school boards to state legislator. Another sign of impact is the appointment of leadership graduates to local and state task forces and boards. Community Leadership Program alumni now serve on the state boards of organizations, such as Young Farmers, Governor's Drug Commission, State Industrial Development Authority, local library boards, land use planning commissions, and countywide needs assessment teams. Several counties now require that appointees to local governing boards be graduates of the Community Leadership Program.

Graduates told agents they could make a difference in leadership roles they're already in, using skills learned from class. Many participants were already active in civic and business leadership roles, but now have greater skill and knowledge of effective leadership.

Based on these findings, the program has helped build a solid community leadership base in rural Georgia counties. If the leadership actions of program graduates are any indication, they learned the importance of working together toward common goals and acquired or honed the skills needed to achieve those goals.


Georgia's Community Leadership Program, designed to enhance and develop skills of community leaders, has also highlighted how Extension can be a catalyst for creating stronger linkages and problem-solving capabilities in rural areas. This finding is significant to communities as they search for solutions and resources to solve the complex problems of the future. In a time of dwindling federal and state resources, Extension can help communities discover and develop local resources. Just as Hodgkinson suggested interagency collaboration at the national level to better use resources, reduce duplication of effort, and more effectively attack complex problems,6 so too must local community leaders develop networks to share resources and solutions to local problems. The Community Leadership Program has provided educated leadership and a forum for such cooperation.


1. L. J. Beaulieu, "Building Partnerships for People: Addressing the Rural South's Human Capital Needs" (Proceedings of a Regional Conference Revitalizing the Rural South, Birmingham, Alabama, January 16-18, 1990) and R. Soileau, "Social and Economic Impacts of Rural Revitalization" (Proceedings of a Regional Conference Revitalizing the Rural South, Birmingham, Alabama, January 16-18, 1990).

2. G. Berry, "The Secret of Economic Success in Local Leadership, Georgia Trend, I (No. 5, 1986) and A. Niemi, "Rural Georgia Can Save Itself," Georgia Trend, VI (No. 12, 1991).

3. National Extension Task Force on Community Leadership, Community Leadership Development: Implications for Extension (University Park, Pennsylvania: Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, 1986).

4. M. Q. Patton, Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1990).

5. C. Sellitiz, L. S. Wrightsman, and S. W. Cook, Research Methods in Social Relations (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976).

6. H. Hodgkinson, The Same Client: The Demographics of Education and Service Delivery Systems (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership, Center for Demographic Policy, 1989).