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The leadership course for big hearts not bigwigs

Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF) representatives Scott Gorringe (left) and Margaux Beauchamp (far right) with Australian Rural Leadership Program participant Simon Gabb (second from left) and GRDC grower relations manager – south, Tim Bateman (second from right), at Simon’s graduation.
Photo: Australian Rural Leadership Foundation

When Simon Gabb caught up with his former boss, Tim Chaffey, he never expected the conversation would turn to what it meant to be a leader.

“Tim was my manager when I was 26 and working on farms on the Liverpool Plains around Gunnedah, New South Wales,” Simon says.

Their friendship grew while working together and continued after Simon returned home to Skipton, Victoria, to help manage the family farm with his brother Alistair.

Simon, now 35, recalls he and Tim yarning one day and Tim telling him what he had learned while completing the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP).

When Tim suggested applying, Simon was surprised: “I said, ‘No, that’s for bigwigs’.” Tim persuaded him otherwise. “So, after checking if my brother Alistair and our employee Ben McCullum would cover for me while I was on the course, I did apply and was thrilled when GRDC sponsored my participation.”

Course content

Over about 50 days, ARLP participants are offered:

  • hands-on learning in challenging situations;
  • time and space for reflection;
  • opportunities to develop as intuitive leaders who can work under complex circumstances; and
  • the ability to influence and make a positive impact.

Participants complete the course over 15 months. This involves four to five sessions, with travel across Australia and New Zealand.

The program aims to build resilient, courageous and influential leaders who are committed to the prosperity and sustainability of rural, regional and remote Australia.

Although Simon was keen to start learning, his course collided with the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring much of the face-to-face learning to be done online via the Zoom platform until travel was permitted.

“When travel became possible, part of the program involved removing us from our creature comforts and typical routines and putting us in situations that would equalise us,” Simon says.

“Some people are comfortable in those situations, and some are not, and when that occurs, we learn how people react to uncertain situations.”


Simon says the early part of the program focused on participants learning about their own thoughts and behaviours.

“As soon as we become aware of our own thought processes and behaviours, we become aware of our impact on others.

“For example, I’m generally a reserved, analytical, black-and-white thinker who takes my time in making decisions to ensure I try and make the right choice.

“I learned how others might feel when working with somebody like me who is process-driven and analytical. It helped me to see that some people don’t care about process; they just want an answer and to keep working.”

Simon also says he learned that just because somebody might challenge his approach does not mean they are saying he is wrong; it reflects that they think differently and might be trying to get a faster answer.

“I have also learned that being open to challenge and opening up to others’ opinions may lead to a better outcome for all.”

Words matter

As the manager of a 950-hectare mixed farm incorporating prime lambs and grain, Simon says he learned the importance of carefully choosing his words.

“All 29 of us (in the ARLP) were divided into smaller groups when we spent two weeks in Western Australia, and one of the facilitators told me that I use closed sentences. Immediately the penny dropped,” Simon says.

“I realised that when working with my brother Alistair, I question him to give me the answer I want rather than allowing him the freedom to express what he thinks about an idea. While Alistair has since left the farm to pursue an off-farm career, he and our farm worker Ben would often say they could see a positive difference in how I communicated after each part of the program.

“I took that as a compliment because there was no point doing this course and returning to old habits.”

Privilege and values

Other parts of the program dealt with privilege and values, which were two topics Simon says he had not previously considered.

“Farming can be challenging, and I now see that I am privileged to farm,” he says. “If I can be successful, hopefully, I can leave the farm to the next generation, who will have another shot at farming the land.”

One of Simon’s values is maintaining harmony between the individual members of his family: “I don’t ever want to see a family breakdown.”

His other values pinpointed while on the program include trust, honesty, fun, health and respect.

While in WA’s Kimberley region and in New Zealand, course participants met and spoke with Indigenous elders.

“It was an opportunity to speak freely about values with people with different backgrounds and experiences,” Simon says. “For the most part, they want the same things we do … access to health, education, sharing their lives with their families and recognition.”

Participant feedback

A large part of the program involves participants providing feedback to each other, both positive and constructive.

“On one occasion as day leader, one of my group members said: ‘Simon, stop looking for permission from the group. Make and own your decisions because, 99 per cent of the time, you will do what is right for the group.’”

Future plans

The final part of the program, Simon says, is collaborating on a project with his ARLP cohort. The group of 29 program participants is creating a coffee table-style book that brings together the stories and pictures of regional and rural leaders to:

  • broaden readers’ understanding of leadership in rural communities;
  • reduce the burden on existing leaders; and
  • empower new leaders.

“The book is designed to celebrate the ‘hidden’ leaders within rural, regional and remote communities who quietly inspire and motivate others,” he says. “We have hired a writer to gather stories and find out what makes people want to volunteer with their local farmer group or hospital board, for example.”

One area Simon is particularly passionate about is promoting the agricultural industry as a professional and rewarding career. “I want nothing more – whether it  is talking to school children, university students, middle-aged people or seniors – to demonstrate how much agriculture has to offer,” he says.

“It is not just working in production. There are so many supporting careers that are up for grabs. I attended a careers day where I heard students studying agricultural science say they felt disadvantaged because they didn’t have a farming background.

“I said: ‘I see it the other way. You are not going in with blinkers on and approaching it like mum and dad have done for the past 50 years.”

In thinking about the ARLP experience as a whole, Simon says it changed his thinking and gave him more confidence to contribute to his local community.

“I now feel more able to contribute, whether that’s asking a question at a GRDC National Grower Network meeting or just speaking to others during the morning tea break,” he says. “I now know that I have a voice and am able to use that to engage.”

There is also the lasting value in the trusted network of people he met through the ARLP. “I feel I could contact any one of them any time to ask for advice,” he says.

“Something I want to do is support the people who have recently moved back to this area to farm after choosing to pursue work in other areas or careers, because everybody has something special to offer.

“While my support might be informal at the moment, over time I hope my efforts will continue to help make the Skipton area a thriving part of rural and regional Australia.”

More information: Simon Gabb,; Register your interest in the ARLP.

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