Lynn Spruill: Developing leaders

November 1, 2013 10:06:02 AM

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Recently I happened to be chatting with a charming young man, who now calls Starkville home. He wanted to know how to get involved in his adopted community. I pointed him to the city's website and encouraged him to do some research before settling for a specific area of interest that he might want to pursue. His visit got me thinking about the myriad of choices open to residents who want to make a difference or want to find their place in the greater community. 

 

We each find our place in our communities through various routes. Once upon a time I bought my first house in a new development in a suburb of Dallas. One evening just after the evening news I answered a knock at the front door. Nothing has ever been quite the same since. 

 

The two men at my door were canvassing the development and registering new residents for the upcoming municipal election. I invited them in while I filled out the voter registration form. During that brief time, we talked about my new city and the people running in the election and how to get involved in the community -- much like my visit from the young man this past week. 

 

One of my visitors was running for city council and needed campaign volunteers. From our encounter he gained a worker bee for his campaign and I got a window into the local political world I knew nothing about. The candidates I supported (by going door-to-door on their behalf) won the election. My support allowed me to become known to those making decisions about appointments and from those acquaintances I had an opportunity to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission. That became a springboard for further public engagement. 

 

An easier and more common course is through organized leadership programs. Long ago, sometime in the mid-80s, before there were websites to research, there was Leadership Starkville. It was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce; many of the current and past leaders of Starkville were participants.  

 

Somewhere in there it took a hiatus and when it was resurrected, it became the Oktibbeha County Leadership Forum (OCLF), a collaborative effort between the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and the MSU Extension Service on campus. That arrangement lasted five years. 

 

The program was designed to give future community leaders a look at the workings of government. The website is still up; I'm impressed by the achievements of the members of those five classes. There were future aldermen and supervisors, numerous board and commission members, as well as a future city engineer and city attorney. If the goal was to nurture and promote community participation, this program was a rousing success. 

 

An integral part of the program was a class project. Those projects include the genesis of our first dog park and the birth of the Starkville Community Market. Both the dog park and the market have become fixtures and have marketed Starkville in a positive way. Though these projects would have eventually come to be, but I am convinced they would not have occurred as soon as they did without the contributions of Leadership Forum participants. 

 

This program exists in cities, counties and states across America. Regionally, Columbus has one called Leadership Lowndes. Jackson has one called Leadership Jackson. They all share similar goals of providing existing and emerging leaders the information and skill sets necessary to better understand larger aspects of their community. 

 

Elizabeth Casano of the Columbus Link has been in charge of the Lowndes group for the past three years. She said that program produced the "Clean Sweep" program and the Columbus Young Professionals group. 

 

There are leadership programs in abundance, but none that provide the in-depth local knowledge of government, business and civic organizations of the now-dormant OCLF. What a great opportunity to instill civic leadership in our human resources. Surely there is adequate interest in the community to crank this back up again. 

 

I'll bet the Partnership, the MSU Extension and/or the Stennis Institute would be willing to revive the program. I am also betting there is adequate interest from our businesses to sponsor their employees or others through scholarships for those interested in taking an active and positive role. Every good business needs a succession plan. Our community succession plan should include a leadership program.