Graduates From The Chamber Of Commerce's Leadership Institute Are Shaping Little Rock -- One Became Mayor This Month
This month, Sharon Priest took office as the new mayor of Little Rock. A native of Canada, Priest moved to Arkansas in 1974. By 1980, she was active in city politics on the City Beautiful Commission.
But it wasn't until 1985 when Priest was enrolled in the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Institute that she first met many of the names and faces associated with central Arkansas' power structure.
In many ways, she was the perfect candidate for the Leadership Institute. The experience couldn't have been better.
"I had a very limited group of friends," Priest says of her experience in meeting the blue-ribbon list of speakers who paraded before the institute that year. "These were people that I would read about in the newspaper."
In 1986, Priest ran successfully for the Little Rock Board of Directors. When she took office, her perception of Little Rock and its leaders had been positively shaped by her sessions in the nine-month institute.
"Oh, I loved it," Priest says. "It was a real eye-opener to Little Rock. We had the top people in every field. I came away with a really warm feeling."
And that is exactly what the institute is all about -- helping future leaders connect with the city's power structure in politics, in business, and in volunteer groups.
When the 1990-91 class graduates this June, 333 people will have participated in what is described as one of the Chamber's most successful programs.
"I think it was sorely needed," says Judy Russell, director of leadership. "I get calls almost every week about people wanting to get in."
A Tale Of Central Arkansas
For the past six years, the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce has sponsored the all-day, once-a-month meetings designed to introduce participants to central Arkansas from top to bottom: Economics, education, leadership skills, politics, criminal justice, healthcare, media, the area's history and community lifestyles are all given a full day's hearing.
The average age of participants is from 25 to 40 years old. Ideally, they are people who are ready to go out and do something in the community, but don't know where to start.
An anonymous panel selects each year's group from around 200 initial applicants. A little more than 40 participants make the final cut.
A day is devoted to a single topic and leaders in the field are asked to come and speak about their work. The press is not allowed and speakers are encouraged to be candid.
Among last year's speakers were: Sen. Ben Allen, Worthen CEO Curt Bradbury, political activist Betsey Wright, KARK's News Director Bob Steele, UAMS' John Ward, Arkansas Repertory Theatre Director Cliff Baker, and Metroplan's Jim McKenzie.
Meetings are held everywhere from the Chamber of Commerce's downtown office to the Capitol to elementary school tours. Locations are selected that mirror the issues discussed. The curriculum is constantly evolving each year, reflecting what's happening in the community.
And it seems to be effective.
"The first year we had a session on marketing Arkansas that fell flat on its face," says Courtney Swindler, this year's chairman of the institute.
"We try to tailor it to the issues. Whatever is hot," Swindler says. "We had an hour and a half presentation on the Diamond project last month."
A curriculum committee made up of graduates of the institute meets once a month to discuss how the program is progressing during the year. In the summer, the committee meets weekly to schedule events for the upcoming year.
It's hard to find anyone associated with the program who didn't come away with a positive impression. No doubt, that's partly a reflection of who gets chosen for the program.
Looking through the alumni catalogue, all the faces seem bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, energetic, ambitious and climbing. A preponderance of bankers, attorneys, middle-managers, a handful of entrepreneurs -- the bread-and-butter of the white collar world -- is in evidence.
It Began In The City Of Brotherly Love
The original idea for leadership programs by Chamber of Commerce organizations began in Philadelphia in 1959, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that other cities began to imitate the program. As society fragmentation increased and a dearth of leaders for boards of directors arose, other cities began launching leadership institutes. Cities like Savannah, Kansas City, St. Petersburg, Evansville, St. Louis and Minneapolis.
When Chamber President Paul Harvel came to town in 1985, he began central Arkansas' first program. He had run similar programs in Enid, Okla., and Midland and Amarillo, Texas.
"It was the top priority I had before I got here," Harvel says. "I've seen what a lot of leadership programs have done."
Arkansas' first leadership program started in Pine Bluff with Little Rock close behind. Today, Fort Smith, Hot Springs and Jonesboro have similar projects.
"When I came back I was making a long-term commitment," Harvel says. The leadership institute was a big plus.
Harvel says if 10 participants from each class go on to do community work, then that year has been a success. Plus, he hopes graduates are energized to climb to the top in their businesses.
"A good case in point is Sharon Priest. She was in our first leadership class and today she's mayor," Harvel says.
Last spring the leadership group was active in manning Chamber of Commerce phone banks to help pass the school millage proposal. Leadership Alumni Chairman Courtney Swindler called it a "glimmer of hope" for a new era of active leadership.
"There is a lot of possibility for Little Rock right now. It's about time," Swindler says.
The alumni club was formed after the first class graduated and now is planning to offer "graduate seminars" on a quarterly basis. Those should begin this spring.
"What all this is about is to raise your awareness of what's happening in the community," Swindler says. "You know people who are placed in every major organization in town."
PHOTO : BUDDING LEADERS SHAPING THE CITY: Since beginning its leadership classes in 1985, the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce will have graduated 333 members by this June. This month, Sharon Priest, a member of the first class (shown above) became mayor Little Rock.
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|Title Annotation:||The Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Institute graduates|
|Author:||Walker, Wythe Jr.|
|Date:||Jan 14, 1991|
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