Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

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Leadership Development in Extension

...vague and competing definitions of leadership development coupled with lack of clear policy has fostered miscommunication about the nature of leadership development work in Extension. Extension needs to decide which skills should be taught as a part of its leadership development effort.

M. Chris Paxson
Assistant Professor
Hotel and Restaurant Administration
Washington State University-Pullman

Robert E. Howell
Extension Sociologist and Professor
Rural Sociology
Washington State University-Pullman

John A. Michael
National Program Leader in Evaluation
Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.

Siu Kwong Wong
Research Associate
Social and Economic Sciences Research Center
Washington State University-Pullman

Although the Extension System has a long history of work in leadership development, there's little widespread understanding of the range of skills taught or the amount of effort directed toward teaching leadership skills. As a result, Extension Service, USDA, commissioned the National Impact Study of Leadership Development in Extension (NISLDE) to describe and assess Extension's leadership development work. This article summarizes that study's findings.1

The first phase of the NISLDE dealt with definitional and measurement issues. During this phase, the study team: examined Extension documents; interviewed federal, state, and county staff; and conferred with people knowledgeable about leadership development to learn about policy, practice, research, and theory. No explicit leadership development policy statement was found. Definitions of leadership development were vague and didn't communicate what Extension staff teach when they try to develop leadership.

To more clearly define leadership development, NISLDE researchers defined leadership by asking staff what that word meant to them. This analysis revealed that Extension staff refer to 13 broad competencies (see Table 1) and four key educational methods when discussing leadership development.

Table 1. Thirteen leadership competencies.

1. Solving problems. Evaluating alternatives, estimating future impacts,
building general agreements.

2. Directing Project or Activities. Conducting need assessments,
setting goals and priorities, planning, managing human resources,
supervising, measuring performance, evaluating, maintaining supportive
work environment.

3. Forming and Working with Groups. Recruiting, building teams,
identifying responsibilities.

4. Planning for Group Action. Recognizing diverse needs,
identifying key decision makers, understanding power structures,
organizational development, group dynamics, identifying cooperative

5. Managing Meetings. Arranging facilities and equipment, building an
agenda, using parliamentary procedures.

6. Communicating Effectively. Understanding communication styles,
listening, being assertive, speaking in public.

7. Developing Proficiency in Teaching. Maintaining learner interest
and enthusiasm, managing learning environments.

8. Mobilizing for Group Action. Developing broadbased support,
obtaining commitments to action, influencing public policy.

9. Understanding and Developing Oneself. Identifying and clarifying
values, assessing degree of self-confidence, relating to people with
different lifestyles, building self-confidence

10. Understanding Financial Matters. Allocating financial resources,
budgeting and record keeping, understanding financial statements.

11. Understanding Leadership. Understanding leadership roles and styles,
adapting leadership styles to situations.

12. Understanding Society. Learning about society's institutions,
interpreting economic and social data, understanding social problems,
learning about public decision-making bodies and procedures.

13. Understanding Social Change. Understanding change and its effects,
understanding how new ideas are adopted.

During the NISLDE's second phase in 1986, a nationwide mail survey was sent to more than 3,300 Extension faculty and their supervisors to determine the amount of time devoted in 1985 to leadership development work. The 13 competencies were included in the questionnaire to determine the extent to which staff were teaching them. The response rate was 86%.

More than 40% of Extension faculty members reported trying to develop the skills of clientele in all 13 competency areas. Nine percent didn't try to develop any of the 13 skills. Three- fifths of Extension staff reported developing clientele leadership skills while teaching nonleadership subjects such as agronomy or nutrition. These findings indicate the majority of Extension faculty report they're involved in leadership development work, not a select few as with other subject-matter areas. Many didn't consider this work to be leadership development, however, viewing it instead as part of their work in other areas.

On average, staff said they spent seven hours per week trying to develop leadership skills among clientele, or about 15% of their work time. This represents an average of more than 2,600 staff years for the Extension System. County agents averaged nine hours per week, accounting for 70% of Extension's leadership development effort, while state specialists and district staff each averaged five hours per week.

The nature of the competencies included in the list of 13 suggests Extension staff teach skills associated with a stable social order, working within groups, and knowing how to do things right (transactional leadership) as opposed to doing the right things (transformational leadership).

Also, more emphasis seems to be placed on "doing" than "understanding." Extension faculty reported teaching skills that involved behavioral change (competencies 1-8) more often than teaching skills that involved increasing understanding (competencies 9-13). Extension staff gave less emphasis to skills dealing with change, diversity, and conflict.

In conclusion, vague and competing definitions of leadership development coupled with lack of clear policy has fostered miscommunication about the nature of leadership development work in Extension. Thus, there's a need for both research and policy. Extension needs to decide which skills should be taught as a part of its leadership development effort.


1. J. A. Michael, M. C. Paxson and R. E. Howell, An Assessment of Extension's Leadership Development Work (Washington, D.C.: Extension Service-U..S. Department of Agriculture, 1991).