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Building Leadership from the Grass Roots

May 31, 2015
Alberta TCH When you think about leadership what first comes to mind?

Do you have images of presidents of big corporations or prominent politicians or four star generals?

Leadership is much more than that. People from all walks of life step up to the plate to take on leadership roles.


For instance, consider some relatively recent bottom-up, grassroots movements where ordinary citizens displayed extraordinary bravery and leadership: the Arab Spring, initiated by a Tunisian street peddler; the Occupy Movement which spread like wildfire across dozens of countries; and the upwell of demonstrations for a livable minimum wage by service sector people across North America.

People rise to the occasion, which has been demonstrated over centuries of human activity. A powerful read is Emile Zola’s book Germinal, set in the 1860s in northern France, where repressed and abused workers fight back through violent protest.

People rise to the occasion in Canada, America, Great Britain, Europe, the Middle East and in many other countries. In this post we’ll look at how leadership is on the move in rural Canada.

Girl and Calf Enter Small Town Heroes, a grassroots initiative started by the United Farmworkers of Alberta (UFA). More on Small Town Heroes in a moment, but first what is the UFA, what does it do and how is it helping to strengthen leadership in rural Alberta?

UFA is one of Canada’s largest co-ops. Founded in 1909, it has grown from one small co-operative to some 120,000 members. The UFA name is a little misleading since its business lines encompass not just agriculture but also construction, outdoor recreation and petroleum. However, despite its broadened business portfolio over time the UFA has continued to keep rural life and values at the centre of its work and activities.

UFA aims to create value for its members and customers by maintaining strong financial performance and by staying relevant to both the needs of producers and the community. And as with any organization, values serve as the foundation upon which the UFA operates. This inspirational video A Life Out Here talks about what it means to live and work in rural Alberta.

It’s about values.

With agriculture being the core of the co-operative’s long history, it supports and partners with numerous initiatives across Western Canada. Examples include Farmfair international, local agricultural and livestock events, and agri-tradeshows and exhibitions. In addition, the UFA partners with Shaw TV to broadcast Farm Fresh, a program aimed at educating Albertans living in urban centres on agriculture and food production topics.

UFA passionately believes that strong leadership is the key to success in rural communities; therefore, growing leaders is an important priority for the organization. Indeed, UFA has a history of supporting leadership development over many years, with Small Town Heroes being its most recent initiative. UFA engages in a number of strategic and effective leadership development initiatives.

Kids shovelling off Truck Youth leadership plays an integral role in the UFA’s community work because they are seen as the key to the future. As members of the co-operative, young people can participate in programs aimed at developing leadership skills.

For example, Alberta’s 4H program exerts a major impact on rural agriculture, with over 7,000 members, 2,400 volunteers and more than a quarter of a million alumni. UFA’s partnership with 4-H includes sponsoring such activities as the Leaders Conference, the Key Leader Program, and Achievement Days. At the heart of UFA’s involvement with Alberta 4-H is investing in the future of the province and specifically the co-operative’s new generation of leaders.

UFA recognizes the importance of volunteering for community and leadership development. Volunteers are the backbone of rural communities, and UFA wants to encourage more people to lead through volunteering. Through its partnership with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, awards are presented to volunteers who have gone above and beyond, spurring others to give back. By giving visibility to volunteer leaders, UFA encourages more people to step up to the plate and lead.

UFA’s Generations of Support Program, which supports youth, family and agriculture, reflects its commitment to giving back to communities and thanking them for their ongoing support. And with an eye to the future, the Program enables the UFA to contribute to strengthening the viability and long-term sustainability of Alberta’s rural communities.

Over many decades, the UFA has shown extraordinary commitment and leadership to rural Alberta. Yet it has continued to innovate and explore ways to strengthen rural leadership.

Alberta harvesting Created only a few years ago Small Town Heroes acknowledges Alberta’s rural communities and towns and the important role their citizens play in the province’s economy and way of life. In particular, Small Town Heroes identifies those individuals who have contributed significantly to making their community a better place in which to live and work.

Two aspects that are new to this leadership initiative are the introduction of online technology and a participatory nomination and voting process. Specifically, leaders are nominated by their community peers based on four key criteria:

1) See a need and act upon it without seeking praise or financial compensation,
2) Do something significant which was previously thought could never be done,
3) Have a personal vision and a belief that change can happen,
4) Do little things and big things that make an impact on the community that is lasting and memorable.

Peers build support for their candidates with home-videos, testimonials, stories and photos. The nomination process requires followers to identify and articulate candidates’ leadership attributes. Unencumbered by position, power and status, citizens are free to select leaders who put the greater good of their community first. At its core, followership is a choice, based on the leader’s ability to elicit trust, respect and inspiration. Small Town Heroes does a fantastic job of showcasing what exemplary leadership looks like. As a result, it becomes clearer and easier to emulate.

Girl Small Town Heroes has proven to be very effective at clarifying what constitutes rural leadership. In particular, it has used local role models to shine a light on key traits of good leadership, to demonstrate that leadership abounds throughout society at all levels, and to underscore that leadership often rises up from the grassroots. The power behind a collective leadership initiative such as Small Town Heroes lies in its organic nature, transparency and simple format, which can easily be replicated anywhere in Canada and in any sector.

Leadership comes in many forms: young or old, big or small, large city or small town. What’s important is for people to get involved in leading at all levels of society. As we’ve seen strong leadership rises up from the grassroots, whether it’s on the other side of the world or at home in rural Canada.


We’ve been profoundly inept at sharing the windfall of a completely unique level of resources. I’m afraid that 50 years from now, our great-grandchildren will look at what we did with our resources and they’ll rip up our pictures because they’ll be so angry at how we squandered them. Almost no other jurisdiction in the world has done so little with so much.

– Rachel Notley (New NDP Premier of Alberta, and the first woman in that role)



Book CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Discover Your Inner Leader: Reflections to Inspire and Motivate.


Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim Grand Manan FBTake a moment to meet Jim.

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