When Matt Linnegar was growing up in suburban Sydney, his Dad would refer to his son “as a fish out of water’’. Matt didn’t know quite what it meant then but after spending most of his adult life beyond the city, surrounded by the space and distance of regional Australia, it now starts to make sense.
Matt is the chief executive of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, an organisation that strives to identify and support the next generation or rural leadership. There is something entirely fitting about Matt’s arrival at the role: his Dad was from what has been dubbed NSW’s friendliest town, Temora, 80kms from Wagga Wagga, and his uncle is probably the only Australian cowboy of Croatian descent. “My Mum’s family is of Croatian heritage and her brother left home at 16, got on a train at Chatswood and ended up as a cowboy and jackaroo in Roma,’’ Matt says.
A young Matt took every opportunity he could to get out of the city and when he was at home, he convinced the Patrician Brothers who ran his high school to surrender some of their sports grounds to a plot where Matt and some mates planted vegetables and had some sheep.
“I didn’t want to live in Sydney, I wanted to get out. I wanted to work in agriculture. I wanted to live in rural communities,’’ Matt says.
His career has taken him from the old Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation, the youngest executive director in the nation’s rice industry, roles in irrigation and then the CEO of Australia’s peak agricultural lobby group, the National Farmers Federation.
But don’t talk to him about a divide between the city and country: it doesn’t exist.
“I just think there’s a lack of awareness and understanding and that’s not a divide,’’ he says. “Because of where our lives are and where our populations are concentrated, there’s just a lack of awareness.’’
When it comes to leadership, there isn’t necessarily a distinction between what remote, rural and regional Australia require and the rest of the nation but that doesn’t mean there aren’t circumstances confronting leaders outside our cities.
“Leadership is leadership, in a sense,’’ Matt says. “And we know that understanding leadership in context is important, and so in the context of rural and regional Australia, what does that backdrop look like?
“The first thing that we find – and we’re engaging in depth with hundreds of leaders of rural and regional and remote Australia every year – is that more weight, more responsibility, more load rests on fewer shoulders,’’ he says.
“In an urban setting, potentially, you’re asking a leader to lead in their context and carry a load that might be specific to a small part of a community or one particular interest area. The smaller the community gets, the higher the load.
“And secondly, for many in rural, regional and remote Australia, just the support systems services in place to enable leaders to act, can be more difficult: your health, education - all your critical services - might be difficult - to access, not to mention telecommunications. ‘’
Matt is an alumnus of his Foundation – the first one to lead the organisation, that boasts 1500 graduates. On Thursday (October 17), the Foundation will hold its annual gala and launch this year’s Alumni Scholarship Appeal that provides the opportunity for someone who would not normally have the chance, to take part in one of the Foundation leadership programs. Last year’s inaugural recipient, Yola Bakker, will speak as a member of the graduating cohort.
Matt knows that the graduates will face challenges: some of it is practical but much of it is shifting perceptions.
“The lens through which most Australians see rural and regional Australia is through a deficit - the drought, the economic hardship - how far behind our urban cousins we are: all those sorts of things,’’ Matt explains.
“From a leadership perspective in remote, regional and rural Australia, the first point of reference for us is to stop talking about ourselves in deficit. That doesn’t mean ignoring what’s going on but not to start conversations that talk about that we lag behind the rest of Australia and we’re so far behind.’’
That change represents a broadening of the national conversation about what is going on in non-urban Australia. On the ground, the priority now is ensuring local leadership appreciates the need to not invest all hope in government.
“From our perspective and interacting with all those leaders… all three levels of government can and must play a part in navigating a path to a better future. If we as rural and regional Australians just put our hand out or turn our head toward government to solve all these problems, that will not be the answer,’’ Matt says.
“Our experience is those communities, regions and groups of people who are doing best are those who had the conversations to look at what a better future looks like for them, to take responsibility for navigating that path and to consider all three levels of government as partners towards that rather than those who are going to deliver the solution or all of the funds to get there.’’
Fundamental to this approach is an appreciation that leadership can come in various forms and should not be constrained by a conventional definition. And that means there isn’t necessarily more or less leadership now than even a decade ago.
“My experience is that there isn’t a dearth of leadership in the country,’’ Matt says. “I see it day in, day out. I think when most people think of leadership they’re primarily, or sometimes only, thinking about positional leadership: someone’s got a title, therefore they’re a leader, so how do I view that leader? The first thing for me is that it’s not title or positional and people are leading every day – some of them have titles, some of them don’t.’’
But that broader appreciation of what leadership looks like doesn’t quarantine it from the changing social circumstances that have shifted the focus away from the community good towards the individual’s satisfaction.
“The shift we’re talking about now is more about instant gratification: the power of the individual and focus on the individual,’’ Matt says. “There needs to be a shift back the other way – to what extent are we supporting others, to what extent can we act in interests greater than ourselves. I’m not saying that isn’t happening – there’s plenty of evidence that it is happening – but there’s a rising tide on the other side that is making that more difficult.’’
It is a message of action for the greater good, founded on collaboration and relationship-building. This approach captures Matt’s reflection on what real leadership looks like.
“There are always people who think that a different leadership style could be more successful – more aggressive, more combative, more coercive. Can you get results with that approach? Absolutely you can get results,’’ Matt explains. “My question over a long time being involved is how sustainable is it? You can do that and get some short-term advantage but is that to the long-term greater good that you’re serving?’’