Recommended Insights
Recommended Insights

Succeeding as a Rural Leader: Lessons of Experience

Golden Leaf Foundation
CLIENT:Golden LEAF Foundation
LOCATION:Headquartered in Rocky Mount, NC
SIZE:27 employees

Client Profile & Challenge

The Golden LEAF Scholars Leadership Program, developed by us for the Golden LEAF Foundation in Rocky Mount, NC, is designed to provide the scholars with job opportunities in North Carolina’s rural areas and to foster leadership skills in the scholars so they will have the tools necessary to return to their hometowns or other rural communities in the state as future community and business leaders.

Golden LEAF was created in 1999 to manage one-half of North Carolina’s share of funds from the Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies. The foundation has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to help students from eligible communities attend the state’s colleges and universities.

The program currently provides leadership training and internship opportunities to 192 freshmen and sophomores who receive Golden LEAF scholarships to attend North Carolina’s public and private colleges and universities. Most of the scholars are the first generation in their families to attend college. The program had 63 sophomores return this year for the second phase of training. Their hometowns are in 52 of 78 counties in the state designated eligible by Golden LEAF because they are rural and tobacco-dependent or economically distressed.

Golden LEAF-Funded Internships

The 8-month leadership program begins with a 3-day leadership conference at our Greensboro campus, attended by the scholars and coaches who mentor them during the entire process. Each scholar finds a summer internship in his/her hometown, paid for by the Golden LEAF-funded program, and completes a community needs assessment. They then come back together to share results and lessons learned at the end of their summer internships. In the program’s inaugural year, 99 freshmen participated, with 93 of them finding internships – many of which were in business, education, government, medicine and service industries.

Solution & Results

In summer 2017, the Year 3 Golden LEAF Leadership Scholars interviewed rural leaders from their home communities as part of their summer projects. These interviews were modeled after our original Lessons of Experience research (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988). A small team of our researchers and Golden LEAF Scholars and researchers worked together to analyze the data in response to 3 research questions:

  • How do you become a rural leader?;
  • How do you grow as a rural leader?; and
  • How do you succeed as a rural leader?

Becoming a Rural Leader

Our first goal to understanding rural leadership was to examine the ways that individuals become rural leaders. We found 3 main factors that influence pathways to rural leadership: education, mobility, and family and community ties.

Growing as a Rural Leader

Rural leaders grow by learning from experience. All respondents cited on the job experiences as key to their continued leadership learning, while about a third of respondents said that either formal learning (university courses or classroom style professional development) or informal learning (seminars, workshops, etc.) were formative to their growth as a rural leader.

Succeeding as a Rural Leader

We asked current successful rural leaders about the qualities that help rural leaders influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of their organization or group. Success was defined as being able to create positive change, that is sustainable, and has benefited communities or groups of people.

Partner With Us

Partner with us to create a leadership development program tailored to the distinct challenges facing higher education, and help build a brighter future – one leader at a time.


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