The ARLF leadership blog

Leadership: Beyond the divide

15 May 2020

We need to build a distinct style of collective leadership for rural, regional and remote Australia

Demographer Bernard Salt has argued recently that rural, regional and remote Australia may become attractive places to live and work for more Australians as a result of COVID-19.

The pandemic is not the catalyst for change anyone would have hoped for, but it might be the starting point for a deeper understanding and connection between “the country” and “the city”.

Australians living in cities have always been willing to lend a helping hand to those in the bush – recent fires, droughts and floods are stark examples. This is very much appreciated and goes a long way to strengthening this bond, but it also frames part of the problem. 

That is what I call the “deficit discourse” a term I’ve borrowed from my friend and colleague Scott Gorringe in reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians wanting to break the cycle of deficit as the dominant frame of reference. A similar concept applies to rural, regional and remote Australia.

Salt refers to urban and more closely settled regional areas featuring “the global knowledge worker, prosperous better educated, better-connected Australia” and remote, rural and some regional areas as “less connected, less educated, less prosperous”.

Surely, we must take a different path if we are to break this discourse.

Let’s start by finding out more about what each other values, our co-dependencies and actively build stronger connections from this base. Practically, a move to more remote working should ease the pressure on cities like Sydney and Melbourne which are straining at the seams, but it takes more than a job to attract people to move outside the city, so the benefits of a different way of living must be made clear.

If we can create deeper connection and move away from a tale of two Australias then the next step rests with rural, regional and remote Australia and its leaders.

For too long our approach has focused on the long list of rural problems that need solutions and then asking for governments of all stripes to sort them out. Rural, regional and remote Australians are rightly well known for their ingenuity and can-do approach and what is needed now is a move to a whole of community/regional focus. This will not be easy. To move the focus of energy and commitment beyond self, beyond family, beyond organisation and even sector is difficult, complex and at times thankless.

And yet this is at the heart of leadership. Leading from the front, taking responsibility for decisions made and being absolutely decisive is part of leadership. But to only behave in this way is one-dimensional and outdated. Leadership also requires supporting others to act, not always having all the answers but having a sound process and solid relationships in order to find the right ones. Leadership also means a respect for a diversity of perceptions and views and the ability to navigate a way through complexity and conflict towards a shared understanding of what a better future could look like.

I see this leadership in many places around the country and in the communities and sectors I work with daily. The organisation I head – the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation – runs programs and initiatives focused on what is sometimes referred to as a “plus 10” approach. The idea is to build leaders who give positive support for at least 10 other people to act and develop their own leadership. There are other leadership approaches, but my view is that individual leaders are not enough: we need to build a distinctively rural, regional and remote style of collective leadership. State and federal governments need to be part of this push to help create -communities that can provide an alternative to the densely populated cities that dot our coastline.

By Matt Linnegar