Every community, large or small, has outstanding persons who take charge of community events and set the tone for social standards in their communities.  Rural communities where everyone knows each other have particularly strong figures who are respected by nearly all their residents and who are looked to for advice and help when local issues need to be addressed.

Members of any community can regularly identify, and usually agree, who are at the top of the esteem ladder in their communities.  Gender, race, religion, age, wealth and other demographic characteristics are less important than the esteem these residents have earned through their efforts and leadership recognized by their peers.

The term, “the keepers of the culture” is a way of describing who these influential community folks are.  They are the standard bearers against whom we consciously or subconsciously compare other residents.

To illustrate, my little Iowa community had a small sturdy woman who organized parish dinners for funerals, weddings and all sorts of events.  This petite dynamo was known throughout the area for her superb dressing recipe, the one we make in our home every Thanksgiving.  A true keeper of our culture, she modeled the spirit of working together to prepare massive tasty meals until shortly before her passing.

Who become the keepers of the culture?  Research by sociologists, psychologists and political scientists indicates the persons in a community who become cultural leaders exhibit the following attributes, listed in their order of importance:

•    Demonstrated efforts to help peers in their social group

•    Motives perceived as compatible with most of the people in the group, such as working hard

•    Recognized intelligence and skills that are valued by the group

•    Positions of leadership already achieved, such as a political office, and

•    Physical attractiveness, athletic prowess, notoriety, and wealth

Elected leaders and those who are the keepers of the culture aren’t necessarily the same persons.  Sometimes, elected leaders aren’t the most respected persons in their community, and other respected persons do more to define the overall norms for the community.

What does it take to become a cultural leader?  Besides favorable attributes, social scientists say leadership style has much to do with the ascension of people into respected positions in the community social order.

Two leadership approaches have been identified as essential to group functioning: task-oriented and social-emotional leadership.  Task-oriented leaders know how to mobilize efforts to accomplish specific tasks, like organizing a community fund-raising event.  Social-emotional leaders recognize that how group members feel is essential to completion of most tasks.

In the Western World that includes the U.S., males tend to be more task-oriented and focus on tangible tasks, like managing schedules, finances, and protecting the physical property on which their community depends, while females tend to provide the emotional understanding people in the community need.  The saying, “People remember how you make them feel more readily than what you say” fits social-emotional leaders.

Effective leaders demonstrate elements of both styles of leadership, although individuals usually favor one over the other approach.

Most families, businesses, social groups such as clubs, and communities have at least one or more acknowledged leaders.  If one of the leaders or several different persons do not exemplify either or both approaches, the social group will gradually decline in its functioning and survivability.

Rural communities are often more close-knit than urban and other large communities.  Small towns and regions have reduced choices of respected citizens.

Everyone knows each other in small communities, except perhaps the newest residents.  The newest residents quickly pick up cues from their interactions about who is highly respected.  Rural communities tend to static and have less demographic changeover than larger communities.

The earliest communities that resembled modern towns and cities emerged some 13-15,000 years ago.  They depended on agriculture to furnish consistent food supplies to survive lean periods.

Because their communities had sufficient food, some members developed other task-oriented skills besides farming, such as building structures, teaching, metal forging, herbal healers, and other specialties.

The first communities also had social-emotional leaders, such as medicine men or women, who were revered as community leaders and from whom the members sought understanding of gripes with others, removal or placement of hexes, cures for depression, schizophrenia, and advice about settling social grievances. They were the first counselors.

Respecting the culture in small communities has had survival value for eons of human existence.  To this day, farmers and rural town residents who lead their communities exhibit the demonstrated traits of the agrarian imperative theory: the drive to provide the sustenance their community needs, willingness to experiment and take risks, endurance in the face of adversity, confidence in their decisions, capacity to work alone, and effective leadership styles.

Community residents choose if they aim to be keepers of their culture.  Their skills are mostly learned rather than inherited.  Keepers of the culture are needed in every social grouping, especially in rural areas.