Successful communities often have community leadership programs. Such programs are designed to identify, train and engage emerging leaders to improve the quality of life in their communities.
Community leadership programs are not new. Leadership Philadelphia (Pa.), which claims to be the oldest community leadership program in the country, held its first class in 1959-60. Leadership Stockton began its program in 1981 and states on its web site that it is the oldest community leadership program in California. In New York, Leadership Niagara has been around since 1984. The Leadership Greater Jackson (Miss.) program began in 1987. A quick Internet survey reveals that community leadership programs really took off in the 1980s.
For the most part, community leadership programs are organized and administered by local chambers of commerce that realize the benefits of identifying emerging community leaders and familiarizing them with community issues. Participants have stated that one of the greatest benefits of such programs is meeting and being able to network with other leaders whom they would not have met otherwise. Selection of participants varies from program to program, but most use a nomination process and then select participants so that the class reflects a cross-section of the community. Most programs are of one-year duration, although some are for two years. The class usually meets either monthly or bi-monthly for six to nine sessions.
The first stage of most programs is teambuilding. Typically, participants will spend a day or two at some type of retreat or conference center. There they will learn about the history of their leadership program, the expectations for their class and the ground rules for the coming year. They will probably take some kind of personality test, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, which is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. Teams will be formed within the class, sometimes using the personality tests and sometimes using the race, gender and occupational characteristics of the participants. The teams will be introduced to community projects that have been previously submitted by community organizations or teams will be encouraged to select a community project of interest to the team.
Learning is the second stage. In this stage, participants learn about the history of their community, often from a local historian. They also are educated on the economy, demographics, social and political aspects of their community. This is usually accomplished by presentations from local experts on the various subjects. Organizers of good leadership programs take great care in selecting presenters and issues to the class. Part of the learning stage will also involve field trips to places many participants have never been. One leadership program familiar to this writer has an entire day devoted to the criminal justice system. The class spends the morning in the courtroom, lunch in the jail cafeteria and the afternoon touring the law enforcement headquarters. Along the way, class members hear from the experts about issues related to the system.
Stage three is the action stage. It actually occurs as an overlap and subsequent to the learning stage, as well as between class sessions. During this stage the teams work on their projects. Some projects are based on early selection in the class year, and then completion by the end of the year. One of the values of a two-year program is the extra time to complete a project. Projects are as different as the needs and issues of the community.
Stage four is the alumni stage. This is the stage where most leadership programs have the greatest challenges. The biggest challenge is often how to sustain and grow the leadership base in the community that has now been trained. Many alumni are grateful for the networking aspect, but tend to network only with alumni with like interests. Because most of the cost to attend a leadership program is paid the participants’ employers the participants who become alumni are not personally invested financially in the program. Consequently, when they are asked to pay with their own money, the alumni association becomes less of a priority. Also, the administration of the alumni association is a huge factor in its success. Some alumni associations have monthly meetings featuring great programs, while others struggle to send out a quarterly newsletter.
Although community leadership programs have much in common, it should be noted that they are as diverse as the communities. Smaller communities, in particular, cannot have a leadership class every year simply because the number of candidates is limited. Community issues often play a huge role in the course content during the year. If a community is struggling with racial issues, for example, it would be negligent for organizers not to address those issues.
In closing, I offer a personal observation. As an alumnus of my community’s leadership program and as a presenter at numerous leadership programs in my state and region, I can say that one of the greatest benefits of leadership programs is simply being exposed to perspectives and views that are different from mine. Understanding why others feel and act they way they do is the foundation for a community’s success. For me, that is the hallmark of a good leadership program — and a good community.
Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.