Leadership Greenville celebrates 40 classes, cultivating local leaders
Whether you believe leadership is inborn or cultivated, the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Greenville program has been lifting up leaders since 1973. This August, the program is celebrating its 40th class. Citizens from various professions have been participating in the program that helps to develop “informed, committed and qualified leaders for Greenville County.”
The 10-month program has created standouts in everything from local politics to environmental activism. Participants apply and commit to attending monthly meetings and experiential trips on economy, government, justice, education, quality of life, human services and state government.
Classes don’t just hear presentations, they take part in an initial retreat and team-building exercises, later visiting and touring spots that represent the month’s theme, said Russell Stall, day facilitator and graduate of Class 31. Stall typically leads a discussion after each session.
A goal is to help participants learn about all aspects of their community, both good and bad. One of the most fascinating experiences for Stall was a ride-along with the sheriff’s department. “You see parts of Greenville at times of day that you wouldn’t normally see,” he said.
The most positive session is often the one focusing on local education, he said. Stall said he learned a great deal: “I grew up here and I thought I knew everything about Greenville.”
During the discussions, said Stall, “Leadership Greenville gives you the freedom to ask questions, but Leadership Greenville doesn’t give the answers. It’s a pretty intense 10 months.”
Organizations submit requests filling certain needs and each class takes them on as community projects, dividing into several groups to do multiple projects at once.
Some of those projects have been huge successes, like Class 24’s plan to revitalize the Reedy River falls and surrounding park. Other classes have created public gardens, adopted schools or nonprofits and revitalized nonprofit facilities.
Some projects don’t go according to plan, said Stall, like the idea to make a “planet walk” that would create a display of planets and their relative distances from each other in downtown Greenville. Some ahead-of-the-curve projects were the dog park in Cleveland Park and a bike-sharing idea, which eventually evolved into B-Cycle, he said.
Alex McNair, graduate of Class 34 and class speaker, said he is happy to see his group’s stalled 2007 project, revitalization of the Poinsett Corridor, now gaining traction.
Anne Ellefson, shareholder and managing director of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, became interested in Leadership Greenville through her father, Phil Southerland, who was a member of the first class. Ellefson was part of Class 16 in the late 1990s. “It was a good way to get an overview of the community and what forces were at work in the community,” she said. It also gave her an idea of what volunteer efforts she wanted to pursue, she said.
The Class 16 project, Jackson Achievers, involved adopting elementary- aged students who lived in the Jesse Jackson Townhomes, setting academic goals and offering incentives. The project culminated in a banquet where Jesse Jackson spoke. Ellefson added that a student in the Jackson Achievers program contacted her several years ago when he was joining a Leadership Greenville class.
Participants bond while working toward a common goal, said Stall. Because the group is intentionally diverse, there can be personality conflicts. “It’s a fascinating amalgam of people,” he said.
Stall said while the program is not free (cost is approximately $2,500 for Chamber nonmembers), it is affordable compared to other leadership programs in the region. Class members are sponsored through their employers and others through scholarships, he said. Only one participant from a single company, nonprofit or sponsor is allowed.
And when asked whether it’s worth it, Stall said, “It completely transforms people’s lives.” McNair added it “bound us together as a community.”
At the closing retreat, participants talk about the experience and some pledge to run for public office, Stall said. Case in point: Graduating from the program encouraged Stall to start the nonprofit Greenville Forward.
Josephine McMullen, director of business development for Natrium LLC and graduate of Class 39, said she participated to “forge connections with other people who have a lot of drive, are achievement-oriented and are approaching their lives as entrepreneurs.” The experience has inspired her to serve on the Greenville Tech ESL advisory board and on the board of TEDx Greenville. She also plans to pursue creating an organization to address quality of life issues in Greenville, she said.
Like Stall, McMullen said that she learned new facts about her adopted hometown, like the relationship between the former mill villages and present-day poverty and crime.
“This enduring sense of humility about what I know about Greenville was the most important thing I took away from my LG39 experience,” she said.
Encouraging women to participate in Leadership Greenville is also important, added McMullen, whose class of 59 had 22 women in it. “Greenville needs more bright and talented women to raise their hand and join in leadership training programs like Leadership Greenville.”
There are Leadership Greenville graduates scattered throughout the community and they leave with a built-in support system, the alumni association. The connectedness is a positive result, said Stall. “In any significant organization in Greenville, somewhere there’s a connection to Leadership Greenville.”