Leading Locally program helps create leaders in rural communities

by Russell Schaffer | Rural Prosperity

Leadership Wayne
Russell Shaffer | Rural Prosperity Nebraska
The Leadership Wayne group meets with Sen. Joni Albrecht during a visit to the state capitol.
April 6, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —“To lead is to seek out different viewpoints,” said Lexi Curnyn of Wayne.

“To lead is to be an example,” said Christine Haney of Schuyler.

“To lead is to encourage one another to be their best self,” said John Mullen of Wayne.

“To lead is to be that resourceful person that anyone can come to,” said Adi Perez of Schuyler.

Everyone has different views on what it means to lead. What’s important, however, is that anyone, in any community, can be a leader.

Organized by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Rural Prosperity Nebraska team, Leading Locally is a community-driven program that works with residents to create an outline that matches their goals on leadership development. A series of workshops, presentations and service opportunities revolving around those goals helps create stronger, more capable, more proactive leaders in rural Nebraska communities. This month, Schuyler concludes its second consecutive year, and Wayne its 13th.

“It opened my mind to think not so much about me, but the community of Wayne and how we can just be better,” said Mullen, who graduated from the program in 2021.

The program isn’t only for current leaders, it’s for everyone, said Extension Educator Amanda Kowalewski, co-head of Leadership Wayne.

“It’s refreshing to see a lot of younger people invest back into their community,” she said. “Younger in terms of age, but also people who have just moved in.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Leading Locally focuses on bringing in “new blood” to fix communities. The program is about self-selected improvement.

Participants in the Leadership Schuyler group discuss proposals for community improvement projects.
Russell Shaffer | Rural Prosperity Nebraska
Participants in the Leadership Schuyler group discuss proposals for community improvement projects.

“It starts out asking ‘What’s been working?’ and ‘What’s behind that success?” said Milan Wall, co-director of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development and contact for Leadership Schuyler. “The negatives don’t get ignored, but they get transformed into opportunities.”

Throughout the nine-month program, this reflective process, known as appreciative inquiry, is augmented as residents participate in networking presentations from economic development officials, conflict resolution workshops with representatives from local colleges, Gallup strengths development activities with extension educators and even visits to the state capitol to meet with area legislators, to name a few of the experiences. All that to help participants discover what type of leaders they can and want to be.

“Taking that time to step back and evaluate myself and my own leadership strengths and weaknesses, I think that that made me more aware of myself and the way that I do things,” said Taylor Gardner, a 2021 Wayne graduate.

“I can deal better with some situations. I see some problems that before I didn’t see,” said Alberto Chavez from Schuyler. “Now I can be more respectful of all the things happening around, not only seeing one part of the picture. Now I can see the full picture.”

As program participants become more cognizant of their strengths and positive attributes, the presentations and workshops they engage in help steer that awareness outward to their communities, focusing on how they can apply the lessons and newfound skills to improve their neighborhoods and local businesses, especially through diversity and inclusion.

“The more people you can get involved, the more backgrounds you can draw from, the more viewpoints you can get,” said Nolan Samek of Schuyler. “It’s going to benefit these small towns to get more people involved and more people out in the community.”

Even with the focus on improving neighborhoods, cultivating an active main street and strengthening community culture, what individuals take away from the experience is unique and personal.

That is one of the major tenets of the program, Kowalewski said, “thinking about your own leadership philosophy, how you want to define your leadership involvement within the community. It’s not going to be the same for everyone.”

But the program itself is for everyone. Participants re-engage their communities and are better able to make a difference and usher in the next generation of leaders. What they’ve learned throughout the program will stay with them, as it’s now part of who they are.

“It’s not like they just learn some stuff about leadership and turn it on only if they’re playing a community leadership role,” Wall said. “It becomes a part of how they deal with their world.”

Leadership Schuyler is holding graduation from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. April 12 at the Schuyler Golf Club, 295 Higgins Drive. The cost to attend is $10 per person.

Leadership Wayne is holding graduation from 1 to 8 p.m. April 14 at the Beaumont, 2611 N. Highway 15, Wayne. The day will include exercises reflecting on the previous year, a social hour, dinner and presentations from the graduates.

Learn more about Leading Locally.