Why leadership styles matter in rural Iowa

AMES, Iowa – Leadership style in Iowa’s rural towns affects local economies and citizen satisfaction with their communities, according to a new report from an Iowa State University sociologist.

David Peters, associate professor of sociology, recently published an analysis of survey data from rural Iowans evaluating the quality of leadership in their towns. The analysis shows the degree to which small-town leaders adopt the qualities associated with a “shared leadership” style and how that affects how citizens view their town. Peters said communities that buy into the shared leadership model tend to experience a range of benefits that other similarly sized communities don’t.

So what does Peters mean by “shared leadership?” Shared leadership means community members work collaboratively and openly to identify goals and strategies. Leaders who strive for this shared approach seek consensus and encourage community input and participation. Rural towns often depend on volunteers to carry out many tasks, so this collaborative approach can be especially beneficial to make citizens feel like they have a stake in the success of their community, Peters said.

A closed approach to leadership, on the other hand, exerts formal authority to achieve goals defined by the leadership, Peters said. This approach leaves residents feeling as if they haven’t been consulted on major decisions, creating the impression that their input and participation don’t matter.

Shared leadership takes effort

While studies on leadership style show that shared leadership models often lead to better outcomes than more authoritarian approaches, Peters said the shared leadership model takes more time and effort to cultivate. But the new analysis shows that investment in time and effort pays real-world dividends.

“If local leaders take the time to be a shared leader, that leads to better local decisions and residents who are more satisfied with those decisions,” Peters said. “These leaders tend to build teams and coalitions rather than being divisive.”

The analysis found that about 12% of small towns included in the study boast shared leadership, while roughly the same percentage has closed leadership. The remaining small towns fell into an average category. There didn’t seem to be any geographic patterns in the data. But shared leadership towns outperformed average and closed leadership towns in how respondents rated the ability of local leaders to build trust and consensus.

Cross referencing the survey results with U.S census data showed populations in shared leadership communities grew by an average of 8% since 2000, while populations in closed leadership towns fell by 4%. The local economies of shared leadership towns also tended to rely more on agriculture than the economies of closed leadership towns.

The analysis drew on data collected in a survey of nearly 10,000 residents in 91 small towns across Iowa in 2014. The data were part of the Iowa Small Towns Project, a decennial data collection effort that began in 1994. The project defined small towns as municipalities between 500 and 5,000 people that are not next to large metro areas.

A series of eight questions in the survey asked respondents to rate their community leaders on a seven-point scale. The questions asked residents to consider whether they thought their community leadership was trustworthy, open minded and capable of building consensus.

“I hope this publication demonstrates there are tangible benefits from engaging in a shared leadership style,” Peters said. “We want to convince local leaders to take the time to engage with residents and adopt shared leadership practices. It will pay off in the long run because people will feel better about their communities. It can also make your community more attractive to new residents and drive economic and population growth.”