Leadership Greenville has transformed leaders, city for 45 years

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Forty-five years of Leadership Greenville has generated scores of leaders — political, social, civic, and business.

It helped train Nancy Whitworth, Greenville’s economic development director and interim city manager; Phyllis Henderson, a former chairwoman of the Greenville County Council and a state representative; and Derek Lewis, a member of the Greenville County Schools Board of Trustees and the executive director of Greenville County First Steps, an organization that promotes school readiness. It helped train Merl Code, an attorney and municipal judge; Don Koontz, a textile historian; and David Lominack, South Carolina market president at TD Bank.

More than 2,000 Greenvillians — people who either live or work in Greenville County — have completed the intensive leadership-training program sponsored by the Greenville Chamber. Considered one of the most successful leadership development programs in the nation, Leadership Greenville has also transformed the community.

“Leadership Greenville provides an exposure to Greenville that would be difficult to experience on your own,” said Whitworth, who was a member of Class 18.

The program is not Leadership 101, said Tami Miller, the chamber’s leadership development director. All have demonstrated their leadership abilities already.

“We’re about empowering and enlightening people. We’ve got to fuel leaders who are not content to sit on the sideline,” said Miller, who earlier this year won The Preceptor Award, a national award from the Association of Leadership Programs for her work in building leaders in the Upstate. The award was in recognition of Miller’s ability to build meaningful relationships with all stakeholders of the chamber’s leadership-development programs in a manner that builds cohesiveness between program members and community leaders.

Developing new leaders is important because leadership has gone through a transformational change over the past 30 years, said Toby Stansell, managing director for Cherry Bekaert’s Technology Solutions Group.

In the past, every city in the South had four or five very visible leaders who governed the pace and direction of a city, he said. In Greenville, those leaders included Tommy Wyche, Buck Mickel, Charlie Daniel, and Max Heller, Stansell said.

Today, leadership is migrating to a distributive model that takes advantage of the skillset of many, all of whom have a willingness to invest and involve themselves in the community to materially change it, Stansell said.

“More than ever, position, pedigree, and privilege mean less and less,” he said.

The 10-month Leadership Greenville program explores issues that affect Greenville. Days are spent studying quality of life, the economy, local and state government, human services, education, and justice. The group begins with a two-day retreat that includes a simulated society and ends with an overnight retreat and graduation ceremonies.

“You can’t create change or make an impact if you don’t know what the needs are,” Miller said. “It’s not Leadership Greenville’s job to tell you what to think. We give you the info and you decide where to land. It’s my job to make it to where you can’t unsee or unhear things.”

Each class has several projects, enabling members to put what they learn to work to change the community in some way. For the Leadership Greenville Class 45, which began its program in August, that meant a recent session on defining what leadership is.

“Leadership is an activity as opposed to a position,” Miller told them. “This is not a spectator sport.”

Cherington Love Shucker, executive director of the Greenville Center for Creative Arts, said both her parents had gone through Leadership Greenville and she knew they had transformational experiences. She wanted the same.

She said after Class 45’s opening retreat, a trust has built up between class members, enabling them to talk about the issues and their perspectives.

“Trust is the first step to solving a problem,” she said.

Angela Perez-Litwin, a social entrepreneur and a clinical psychologist in private practice, moved to Greenville from New York City a year ago.

“I was in awe of the vision our past leaders had for Greenville and I wanted to be part of the next vision,” she said. “I want to make Greenville better than what it is. I want a deep understanding of what Greenville has been, what it is, and where it wants to go.”

Adam Witter, a member of 2017’s Leadership Greenville class, said the program doesn’t end after graduation. Witter, who is participating in the program’s curriculum this year, said some of his class members formed a Transportation Task Force and continue to meet monthly.

“I thought the program was to network and get to know people. It turned into collectively trying to really make a difference in our community because Greenville has a lot to celebrate. We all live on Main Street and celebrate the great things there, but there are a lot of needs off Main Street,” he said.

Debbie Wallace, the president and chief operating officer for Verdae, grew up in Greenville. She said being a part of Class 40 added tools to her professional toolbox and expanded her personal network, but more importantly, it broadened her sense of responsibility to support Greenville through a number of highly effective nonprofits.

Whitworth said Leadership Greenville caused her to step out of her comfort zone.

“Throughout the years, the current challenges and issues may change, but the principles of thoughtful engagement, respect for different points of view, and focus on finding common ground remain timeless,” she said. “The Leadership Greenville experience reinforces that philosophy.”

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