One of the great surprises of Stuart Crosthwaite's university years was being elected president of his hometown cricket club in north-east Victoria.
As a dairy farming teenager "too shy to put his hand up in class", Mr Crosthwaite had no ambitions for leadership roles, nor to become a fifth-generation farmer when he left for university with his sights on a career in engineering.
His life goals altered after switching to an Agriculture Science degree, working as a field officer for Murray Goulburn in western Victoria and eventually returning to the family farm at Kergunyah South.
Mr Crosthwaite now runs a thriving dairy operation, mentors a future generation of farmers, is founding chair of dairy co-operative Mountain Milk and is participating in the 15-month Australian Rural Leadership Program, sponsored by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.
While paving a new direction for the family farm, Mr Crosthwaite inevitably landed on various committees, including Alpine Valleys Dairy, which established a successful strategy to increase the region's milk production.
“I’m proud to say the north-east has probably grown our production by 20 to 25 per cent in the last decade,” he said.
Unhappy with Murray Goulburn, Mr Crosthwaite and five farming peers formed the north-east Victorian dairy co-operative Mountain Milk two years ago.
The co-operative has grown to eight members with a vision to produce its own bottled milk, while also increasing its collective negotiating strength with processors.
With so much leadership experience, Mr Crosthwaite said his innate style was a "doer", directing people with "black and white instructions".
But the Australian Rural Leadership Program has been transformative, as Mr Crosthwaite now role models a more inclusive style of leadership which he hopes will ripple through his business and wider dairy industry.
“I have learnt a lot about myself, and how my style affects the people around me.
“I have a better understanding of how connecting with the people around you can get a better outcome for the team.”
Learning self-awareness has also helped him appreciate the need to manage his own workload and "help others carry some of the load", in turn, fostering their leadership capacity.
“My leadership style is now more of a facilitator than a footy captain.
“I sat down with my staff and we developed our own core set of values.
“They said, ‘we want more teamwork, communication and responsibility'.”
Mr Crosthwaite's three staff now each have an area of responsibility — assistant herd manager, assistant feed manager and assistant maintenance manager.
Herd manager Angela Dunstone is rapt to have more responsibility and training opportunities in her field of interest and said Mr Crosthwaite's leadership style made her feel "valued and valuable to the business".
His new leadership style has made Mr Crosthwaite learn that inclusive leadership helps enthuse and retain employees.
“I value that my staff can see opportunities for improvements, and I really want them to have input into that,” he said.
“A lot of people think you are born a leader, but I have learnt leadership can be taught.
“I've learnt to be more aware of the people around me and more aware of myself.”