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‘Driving Change’ panel: Bridging programs reveal modern nature of leadership

“One of the things [Catherine Rasmussen] does really well is she moves from a top-down view of leadership to a world view of networked distribution.”

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, consultant Kathleen Allen comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Toward a common civic vision in Greater Minnesota.”

Kathleen AllenKathleen Allen

Kathleen Allen, in her career as an academic and consultant, has studied leadership and how the concept has evolved to meet the demands of new eras, from the traditional top-down model of the last century, for instance, to one that empowers individuals today.

In that sense, it’s the localized adaptability of the University of Minnesota Extension bridging program – which seeks to strengthen civic ties and develop leaders in rural counties – that makes the initiative so promising.  “I think it can create a huge sustainable shift,” she said.

Each of the three individual bridging programs Extension has sponsored so far – in Brown, McLeod and Nicollet counties in southern Minnesota – have been built with the unique characteristics of each region in mind. While all three counties are strongly agricultural, for example, some are experiencing more immigrant influxes than others.

“In leadership theory, the design (of a program) matters and can often drive the effectiveness of the change,” said Allen, who holds a doctorate in leadership and runs Allen & Associates, a consulting firm in St. Cloud. “The design in Brown County allows people to come together over time to build relationships – and social capital – and also build their own capacity – human capital.”     

She added: “That also provides a way for people to begin to imagine the possibilities for their communities – in both individual and collective ways. Leadership is really about initiating change; that’s what makes the (bridging) program work.”

Working behind the scenes

Extension educator Catherine Rasmussen has helped to develop the three county bridging programs with plans for three other counties to take part. The nine-month initiatives bring together about 20 participants from the public and private sectors; each month, they meet in various communities in their counties for tours, discussions and various training sessions.

Catherine RasmussenMinnPost photo by Gregg AamotCatherine Rasmussen’s job is to get participants to the point of empowerment

Rasmussen developed the program after joining Extension and discovering a need for closer collaboration among communities in rural regions.  Rasmussen credits the participants with making the bridging efforts go, but Allen, reflecting on the profile of Rasmussen and the bridging program written for MinnPost, sees more at work.

“What she didn’t really name in the piece is what she does through her relationships,” Allen said. “One of the things she does really well is she moves from a top-down view of leadership to a world view of networked distribution” in which participants drive change themselves once they feel more equipped and confident to do so. Rasmussen’s job is to get them to the point of empowerment.

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“Let’s use a theater metaphor,” Allen added. “The people in the program are the actors and she is working behind the scenes, whether as the stage manager or producer or director – something that is not visible but is very important.”

Part of that crucial, behind-the-scenes leadership is understanding context, especially in regions that are changing fast, Allen said. In that sense, Rasmussen might be perfectly suited for the job. She taught high-school English for years in her hometown of New Ulm before accepting a position as an Extension educator – initially to work with youth in Brown County. That combination of rural roots and years of experience in the classroom has given her an important perch from which to view and help direct the bridging program.

Elevating the local

Participants in the McLeod County program, who were interviewed by MinnPost during a May training session near the town of Biscay, noted both the teaching element of the program and its very localized focus when asked what features made it effective.

“She understands the context so well because she grew up near New Ulm and on a farm,” said Allen, who is an acquaintance of Rasmussen’s and has worked as a consultant for Extension. “She is embedded in that context. Her stories matter and make meaning for the participants.”

Allen, in a chapter written for a book called “The Transforming Leader: New Approaches to Leadership for the Twenty-First Century,” writes about how ideas about leadership are shaped by an understanding of systems. While the scholarship on leaders once focused heavily on the CEO and traditional management styles, she said, it has evolved from “who is going to do what” into “what interactions will work.”

For instance, the power of narrative – essentially the stories and happenings that make a place unique – has taken on a greater role in training leaders.

“There are more adjectives being placed in front of the word leadership today, such as ‘thought leaders’ (including teachers) who are kind of strongly focused on meaning-making and meaning-giving,” said Allen, who has also worked as a college instructor and administrator. 

“That kind of leadership is also about provoking people’s thinking so that they evolve in their own sense of their world view.”