Unexpected Leadership Lessons From A Dairy Farm

This week I am teaching EntreLeadership Performance Series here in Tennessee, and will be finishing the week off with a couple of Formula races in Savannah. I’ve asked some of the incredibly talented commenters of this blog to share their wisdom. Here’s a great post by Aaron Nelson. Aaron is the owner of Epicenter Languages. You can guest post as well! Read how to here.

I grew up on a rural dairy farm in Nova Scotia, Canada. And when I say rural, I mean we were so far out in the middle of nowhere, my best friends were my brother and our 30 cows.

I didn’t realize it then, but all the hard work that living on a farm entails actually taught us a couple of valuable lessons on leadership, which I would like to share with you.

Leadership Is Never About the Leader

A dairy cow needs to be milked at least twice every day. If you don’t do it, she will quickly become sick and could even die. A great dairy farmer knows that life literally revolves around meeting the needs of his four-legged, black-and-white-spotted animals. Forget about them, and you’re out of a job. The same is true for your team.

Leaders Lead.

Cows are pretty dumb. If left to themselves, they tend to wander and get into trouble. I remember several occasions spending hours alongside my father rescuing a cow that had somehow managed to get tangled in one of our barbed-wire fences.

People aren’t dumb. But if you stop giving them clear directions, if you quit being there for them or if you start distancing yourself from them, you’ll quickly find yourself having to untangle your team or your business from that “barbed-wire fence.”

It’s been a number of years since my farm days, but the lessons I learned remain viable. Like the farmer and his herd, leaders need their people just as much as their people need them.

Question: What past experiences have taught you about leadership?


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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

104 thoughts on “Unexpected Leadership Lessons From A Dairy Farm”

  1. Nice simple post for a Friday!  I would add, if your people are asleep at their job, don’t be afraid to tip them over.  Do people actually “Cow Tip”?

        1. @lilykreitinger @Aaron Nelson @TroyD Ummmmmmm….Lily……I know you’re from the city, but those are tractors, not cows in that movie….sorry to be the one to have to break it to you….

        2.  @Aaron Nelson  @lilykreitinger  @Skropp I’ve heard of sheep tipping (legendary among knitters) but not cow tipping. And tractors that tip maim and kill people. It is horribly common- I can think of 4 incidents without even trying.

  2. Don’t assume.  Period.  I learned this as a small unit leader in the military, don’t ever assume everyone is on the same sheet of music, you need to be explicit with the details regardless of how rote the task or mission may be.  Assumptions can lead to big, often irreversible, mistakes.

    1. @steelegoing Your first line could be a blog post of its own! Years of wisdom in those three words! “Don’t Assume. Period”! I like it!!

    2.  @steelegoing That’s some great burnt rice! One of my English teachers, when not teaching English but life lessons, wrote the word ‘Assume’ on the chalk board.  She circled the first three letters and said: ‘When you assume, you make an A@@ out of U and ME. 
      Love your point!

    3.  @steelegoing I like your last sentence – and I can only imagine the consequences when you are a leader in the military….” Assumptions can lead to big, often IRREVERSIBLE, mistakes.”  You have spoken a very wise word.  Thanks!

  3. Very true. I have had my failures when new therapists have started at our clinic and I made the assumption the chose this job to align themselves with me and were going to passionately follow! They are no longer here!!! Leadership failure because I was not consistently connecting with them and sharing the vision and giving a reason they would want to follow.

      1.  @Skropp  @JoshPalcic Agreed. It is a little of both. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of say in the process. We have been getting limited applicants and there is much pressure to fill the position as quickly as possible. They were great people and would have been excellent additions later on when we are filling different seats on this bus.

    1.  @JoshPalcic Boy do I hear and feel that pain Josh. It’s a lesson learned a long time ago, but one that you need to REMEMBER and live out every day. 
      We’re going through one of our hardest economic times as a family and business. I have caught myself looking down instead of looking out to, and connecting with my team. IT really is true: I need my team just as much as my team needs me.  
      Thanks to writing that post, I gave myself a swift cow kick in the rear end, and started intentionally connecting with my team. So far, morale has shot up for me (and my team) – next to shoot up: our business.
      You have a great day Josh!

    2.  @JoshPalcic  It’s a tough lesson but it is true that if we don’t spell it out to the team and make sure they are on the same page, we’re going to be reading from a different book!

    3.  @JoshPalcic Maybe we should view things like this as stepping stones instead of stumbling blocks! 🙂

      1.  @JoshuaWRivers Definitely!  God gives us these tough challenges and then if we are faithful enough, he will allow us to stand on these lessons so that we are better off in the end.
         @Aaron Nelson Dude…you are very encouraging here; so I’m sure if you are this encouraging in person, your team is very lucky!!!  Keep fighting for it!!
         @Skropp Agreed.  Cows kick hard!

  4. Nicely done Aaron! It’s so funny that this posted today! I wrote a post yesterday that I was going to put up today titled “Leadership Lessons from the Saddle” haha that had the same general theme!! I think I’ll wait until Monday I post it now!! Don’t wanna scare all the city olk with out farm livin’ stories! Haha.
    I think leadership is BEST learned from experience. People experience, but also all our life experiences if we’ll but open our eyes to see them!
    I learned several lessons while serving a full-time mission for my church. Communication dos and donts, conflict resolution, inspiring ad motivating a team. It’s amazing what and when we can learn if we just have an open mind and a learner’s heart.
    Thanks for the post Aaron! Happy Friday!

    1.  @Skropp  I have a post called Leadership Lessons from the Chicken Coop… I see a theme here… It’s not coincidence that my 2 y-o son’s second favorite song is Old McDonald had a farm 🙂

        1. Cute pictures of MacDonald in team meetings with the cows and horses, time management seminars with the rooster, goal setting with the pigs, communication with the sheep and cow dogs…I think I’m onto something!!! Haha

    2.  @Skropp Indeed Mark – leadership lessons that stick are the ones that you learn from experience. “Here, here!”  
      And the other way to learn, as you so rightly say, is to cultivate an open mind and heart. 🙂 Happy Friday to you, sir!

    3.  @Skropp I think leadership is best learned from the experience of others, but it is definitely best remembered from personal experience.

  5. Great post Aaron!!  My husband grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Western North Dakota, population 120 or so.  There’s more cows than people in the state.  Through him I see how people who farm have exceptional work ethic and are very truthful and trustworthy. 
    When your survival depends on the small tasks you perform every day, you definitely become resourceful and learn to have no excuses.  
    Your post also made me think of the Good Shepherd.  In Western culture we don’t have this concept because the shepherd goes behind the herd trying to push them to move along.  In Eastern culture, the shepherd walks before the flock, keeping them from harm and making sure the path ahead is safe. I didn’t know this, but apparently sheep do know their shepherd’s voice and respond only to him.  I think Jesus was pretty smart when he used images from farming and agriculture to explain his relationship with us and one another.  So you’re in great company with your farming/leadership lessons!

    1.  @lilykreitinger Thanks Lily, I appreciate that! However, to be honest I graduated from the ‘push from behind’ herding style. I have much to learn about leadership still 🙂 
      But you’re right – I’m totally grateful for the lessons I was provided with growing up on a farm. I would go back to that life in a heartbeat if given the chance. 
      And LOL with your husband’s small town start – that’s pretty much my story too. Well, now it’s not 120 anymore. It’s 116 in my case, because our family left. 🙂

      1. @Aaron Nelson @lilykreitinger Aaron, you knew the “push from behind” method because you worked with cows…stupid, stupid animals haha. I don’t think you could lead a cow to water if it was 4 days without water!!

        1.  @Skropp  @Aaron  @lilykreitinger LOL I was just about to say something like that – I think cows are some of the least intelligent creatures on the planet. Remind me to tell you the electric fence + wet cow nose story some time. 🙂

        2.  @Skropp  @Aaron  @Aaron  @lilykreitinger It is a great story. Legendary in the annals of the Nelson family.  So here it is in a nutshell: in the winter, we kept the cows in the barn. In the spring and summer they were allowed to roam outside. 
          The first day of being let outside again, they cows are super excited to be free. One of them was also super curious and decided it would be fun to smell the electric fence. (Not a strong shock, just so you know -just enough to let ya know — hey, don’t go here!)  
          So anyway, the cow gets into sniffing range…closer…clo- SNAP! Shocked on the nose. 
          Do you think that was enough for the cow? Nope. Wanting to be sure that the fence was indeed electric, the same cow decides to try and smell it again….same place…2 seconds later. SNAP! 
          AND NO…THE FENCE didn’t have a strong current. My brother and I used to grab it and run to see how far we could get before a shock hit us. Hmmm…maybe that explains a few things about me……;)

        3. @Aaron Nelson @Aaron @lilykreitinger being raised around beef cattle (which may be like a mosquito’s brain smarter than dairy, but not much) I pretty much knew where that was going! And that it surely included more than one shock! Haha

      2.  @Aaron Nelson  Same there, I think they’re down to 104 after his family left.  His high school class was 14 people, one of the largest in town history.  When we went there for the Centennial in 2006 or so, they had a parade and they had to go ALL the way around town three times; otherwise it would have been a 10 min parade.

  6. Thanks, Aaron! These are great reminders of how we should lead. It is always good to remember that leaders are to work more at building their team than worrying about making their team build them up. The latter is only possible when you do the first!

      1.  @Skropp  @JoshuaWRivers There’s too many “leaders” that talk about their employees making him look bad. Or that they need to make him look good to his boss. The true leader does what is necessary to make his team successful, and that is how he will look good.

  7. Insightful post Aaron!  I worked on a dairy farm as a teenager and would never have thought to link leadership and cows; very true though!
    There is definitely something unifying to a team when someone at the top casts his or her vision.  Although, it’s a lot like painting a mental target that everyone can see and shoot for.  Because this is a painted mental target, it has a tendency to fade quickly and needs constant touch-up.  Otherwise, you have everyone shooting for their own targets.  If you are the leader in this case, and don’t purposefully verbalize your vision on a regular basis, your team will soon find a need for bullet proof vests.
     @lilykreitinger  Lily’s comments about Jesus / push – pull are really great too!!!

    1.  @selfemployedbob  @lilykreitinger So true man. If you’re not casting and maintaining vision, you AND your people will perish. Agree agree agree. It’s challenging for me to be remembering to constantly cast vision. 

    2. @selfemployedbob @lilykreitinger Great point Bob!! I remember hearing on one of the podcasts that you should talk about the vision until you’re tired of talking about it…and then talk about it some more!!

    3. @selfemployedbob @lilykreitinger On a side note, for commenter ranking reasons its bad form to address more than one topic in a single comment 😉 cuts down your total comment count 😉 tricks of the trade, haha. It’s all about the numbers! (wait…ummm…)

    4.  @selfemployedbob  @lilykreitinger Amen on the leader casting the vision!  I am guilty of not reaffirming the vision on a regular vasis -Because the vision is so clear with me, I think I share it once or twice and that should be enough – but it is not!  Have to keep sharing, and sharing, and sharing….

    1.  @cabinart You have no idea what you just said!!! Moo with two O’s is cool, but when you add 6 O’s – that’s Cow for….well, I won’t repeat it here, but I’ve had my mouth washed out for much less. 😉

      1.  @Aaron Nelson @lilykreitinger @Jon Henry 
        1. List Lady is short on sleep – this makes her forgetful and stupid.
        2. Aaron, forgot to say  “great post”. Great post!
        3. Can’t think of a good response to your question so I said something stupid. 
        4. If Mooooo is profane, the cows in my county are truly foul.
        5. My county produces more dairy than the entire state of Wisconsin. Around here, the smell of a dairy is the smell of money.
        6. Note the difference between the “BAH” of CLo and the “Baaa” of a sheep. (I hate typos to the degree of a nervous tic or a twitch – just. Prolly works with an H as long as there are multiple aaaas)
        7. “Prolly” is short for probably. Lots of folks talk that way around here. Dairy money does not equal literacy.
        8. I won’t have the internet next week so you will be free of my eternal buffoonery, lists, and typo twitching.
        9. I’ll miss you all!

        1. @cabinart @Aaron Nelson @lilykreitinger @Jon Henry Prolly is good!! When I was in upstate NY I learned they say “yous” instead of you guys or y’all…they add an “s” to EVERYTHING. I picked it up and it drives my wife up a wall when I suggest going to “walmartS” haha.
          And you will be greatly missed!!

  8. Word of praise here!  For those of you that have been graciously helping with my challenges here at work…
    My book club just got a shot in the arm!  The National Engineering Manager (which is really high up) for our company requested his “LinchPin” book early (we don’t start until August).  I went ahead and gave it to him, but asked if he would be interested in reading something else before.  That’s when I pulled out my handy copy of Entreleadership!!!
    He said, is that the guy who talks on tv about finance?  I said, yep.  He also has the number one business podcast in iTunes!  He said, sure, why not?  We then had a long conversation about our culture here and some of the challenges we face.  We didn’t necessarily agree on everything, but the conversation was SOLID.
    It’s so encouraging to know that by stepping outside of my comfort zone, I have made an impact; even if it’s a small one, it is impact nonetheless.  I can’t wait to hear his response from reading it.  This is pretty much the smartest & most influential guy in the company; besides the owner.
    Since I came here (CLo blog) when I was discouraged, I only thought it appropriate to come back when something good like this happened.  I hope it encourages all of you too!  Thanks for listening!

    1.  @selfemployedbob 
      Very cool, Bob!  Celebrate the impact.  There is no such thing as small impact!

    2.  @selfemployedbob THAT IS SO AWESOME! I’m really excited for you man! I bet your story and experience is going to turn into a case study for ‘leading up.’  
      Keep on keeping on! 

    3.  @selfemployedbob Very cool. I have forwarded episodes of the podcast and a couple CLo blogs to my supervisor, but don’t think she has followed up by listening or reading. I think the next step is to get an Entreleadership book for her and giving it to her. (Don’t want to part with mine… Reference it too much to lend it out!)

  9. One of the greatest leadership lessons I learned was one on integrity and cigarette butts. I was sweeping the parking lot a long time ago (maybe 5 years ago) when I was a cook at a restaurant here in Orlando. At the time God had pulled me out of ministry and I didn’t know why. Then He spoke up and said, “For every cigarette butt you miss counts as a flaw in your character and integrity.” I will NEVER forget that lesson. I figured out why I was no longer the lead minister in my own ministry which I had to hand off to another. I don’t want to get into all the details, but I had fallen far. Not I am very conscience about everything that can effect me and others when people are looking and when people are not looking. Because that’s where it matters most.

    1.  @RicardoEquips Nice point Ricardo. Taking care of the details that maybe only you and God will notice is amazing character development. But being the kind of leader who operates with deep integrity – even when no one else is around – is the kind of leader our world needs. 

      1.  @Aaron Nelson Exactly! And since then, I’ve always sought to do the right then when no one is looking. Plus I’ve also sought to be honest about my failures that have happened to the people around me that it could effect like my wife and kids and other team members.

  10. Love the post!  Yes, must to be learned from the farm.  And that is where I have learned a lot of lessons – since I have been a farmer’s wife for almost 30 years!  Great lessons – great  post. 

    1.  @JenMcDonough Thanks Jen! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and gladder still to see you here! I don’t think I’ve seen you around, so if you’re new – WELCOME! 

      1.  @Aaron Nelson Ahhhh….thanks Aaron. I am around, but admire many times from afar. I enjoy Chris’ blog and podcasts. Thanks so much for the kind welcome!  

  11. You make a great point.   Even though you give clear and concise directions there will always be a few stragglers who just don’t get it.  It is best to watch over them until you know for sure they are up to the tasks they have been assigned.  I ran into this problem recently and was kicking myself because I knew better.

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