Lab rats course celebrates 30 years

It has been 30 years since the very first of our leadership programs took flight. Referring to themselves as the lab rats, the first cohort of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) embarked on their first session in 1993. The team and I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a few of them for a virtual cuppa.  

Now in their later, but by no means quieter, stages of life, the group reflected on the enormous challenge the program presented.  

“I had to get choppered out.” 

“The Carr Boyd Ranges nearly killed me.” 

We really have to give it to this group. These thirty rural, regional and remote Australians took the plunge and immersed themselves in this new, innovative and challenging program. It was the first of its kind in this country – so they had every reason to be skeptical or tap out. 

I remember our inaugural CEO Mike Beckingham saying to me that he had no idea how this program would be received or if it would be successful. But both he and program manager John Quantrill had a hunch it just might be. Here we are, 30 years later, looking back. To this day, the ARLF remains the longest and most in-depth experiential leadership development program in the country. 

Now, back to our lab rats. Having to get airlifted out and recalling the challenging conditions doesn’t sound like a worthy experience now does it. 

Trusting a new concept 

They trusted an idea and a concept that had been a few years in the making – an experiential (and experimental at the time) leadership development program.  

A group of dedicated rural Australians believed that leadership was the key ingredient to progress and adaptation for rural, regional and remote Australia, its industries and communities. Hats off to our founders including the Rural Industries Research and Develpment Corporation (now Agrifutures) and a dedicated group comprising Bruce Gowrie-Smith, Prof Snow Barlow, Keith Hyde, Helen Richmond and John Allwright for their foresight and perseverance.  

Mike and John then set about building a program that was right for the times and the future. Carefully examining national and international experiences and then adapting them to the particular needs of rural, regional and remote Australia, the challenge-based experiential learning program was born. Thank you, gents.  

Challenges forge resilience 

The harrowing moments recalled by the lab rats cohort forged resilience, a cornerstone for their future leadership. One shared how the resilience gained became a pillar for their leadership journey, transforming them profoundly. 

”The resilience that grew in me from getting through those challenges set my leadership up for the rest of my life – I became much more resilient.” 

Another spoke of the unbreakable bonds formed, which not only lasted but also provided support through business and life challenges. 

”We instantly created a bond that has lasted the rest of my life.” 

“The camaraderie I’ve developed with course 1 and some others to get through some of the issues I’ve had in business and life in general.” 

Reflecting on the program’s long-lasting effects, one noted their leadership role in addressing sector issues, attributing this to the leadership training. 

“I led the charge and I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had the training.” 

Another credited the program for their venture into politics, empowered by newfound resilience and confidence. 

“Without the resilience and confidence, I got from the ARLP, I wouldn’t have gone into politics.” 

A third alum highlighted the program’s influence on their advocacy and commitment to continuous improvement, leaving a legacy in their community, business and industry. 

“I’ve become a real advocate for that and everything I do evolves around continuous improvement. It’s a legacy I can pass on in my community, business and industry.” 

Leadership hasn’t become easier 

We also had a yarn about the evolving landscape of leadership. Far from saying everything was harder in their day, the lab rats were unanimous that leadership for rural, regional and remote Australia is a harder gig today. Pointing to the dominance of personal truth over fact, more complex challenges of climate issues, competition and getting our voices heard. 

Looking forward, the lab rats offered sage advice for future participants of a leadership program. They emphasised the importance of being open-minded, curious and fully engaged – likening the experience to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  

“Go into it eyes open, ears open, everything turned on. Be a sponge and learn. Greatest opportunity you’ll have in your life.” 

Understanding one’s core motivation was seen as crucial in anchoring the experience.  

“Get a clear understanding of your why when you go into it. It will anchor your experience and where you take it. Really understand your why.” 

They highlighted the importance of contribution, not just participation. 

“It’s important to give and not just take.” 

Finally, they advised embracing a sense of belonging and equality within the group, dispelling any feelings of imposter syndrome. 

“The sooner you feel that you’re part of the team and equal to everybody, the better. You are not an imposter.” 

From me and everyone at the ARLF congratulations to this first cohort and thank you. You are the trail blazers for many who followed. It is clear that you remain close and connected by your shared experience over 30 years later, and long may that continue. 

With this, our 30th anniversary year ends, and we look forward to decades to come. 

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