Leading The Leaders

November 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Leaders aren't born, they are made.

That piece of conventional wisdom is the driving force behind Leadership Grand Rapids, a unique program designed to cultivate individuals who will serve as stewards, advocates and volunteers with the goal of bettering the community of West Michigan.

Unlike other programs that operate under the banner of "leadership training," this 20-year-old institution has nothing to do with making big bucks and rubbing elbows with the stars. Instead, graduates say that the program offers a true insider's look at "the skeleton" of Grand Rapids. By learning how the city really works — its government, its business, and its religious, educational and nonprofit communities — Leadership Grand Rapids participants learn how they can work for their city.

"It has nothing to do with being professionally successful," said Micki Benz, vice president of development for Saint Mary's Health Care, and a graduate and former board president of Leadership Grand Rapids. "I always say that you learn what's behind the headlines in the stories in the media. You learn what the real stories are. Because we're small enough as a community that we'll hear from the editor of the daily newspaper, the mayor, the president of the largest company. And you really get an inside look at how the community works."

That is true partly because many of the city's leaders are LGR graduates, and therefore willing to lend their expertise. Among the notable names associated with the program are Mayor George Heartwell, former mayor John Logie, GR Chamber President Jeanne Englehart, Grand Rapids Community College President Juan Olivarez, Birgit Klohs of The Right Place Inc., and Steve Heacock of the Van Andel Institute. Considering that more than 1,000 community leaders have gone through LGR training, it's safe to say that these are just a few of the many VIPs who have benefited from the program.

One of the resounding comments made by LGR graduates is that the program forced them to look beyond their particular areas of expertise and see the interconnectedness of the city.

"Leadership Grand Rapids gave me a different framework for thinking about how we function as a community," said Heartwell, a 1992 LGR graduate. "It takes a very systems-oriented approach to looking at the community and how each of the systems in the community interacts with each of the other systems, either positively or negatively. We tend to think in terms of: This is the health-care community. This is the human services community. This is the business community. This is the faith community. And we don't allow for much interaction. Leadership Grand Rapids forces its participants to look at the community as a network of systems and to understand how those systems impact on each other. And finally it challenges participants to find ways to work cross-systemically."

The 21st class of LGR is just beginning that education. A diverse group representing the legal profession, financial services, education, nonprofits and government was selected as the class of 2006. Participants are recommended by their employers, community organizations, and, increasingly, by LGR alumni. The class, capped at 35 participants, meets monthly for daylong sessions. The nine-month program opens and closes with two-day retreats in September and April.

Because of the monthly time away from the office, employers must make a substantial commitment to their employees who participate in LGR — more so for those that cover the $2,250 tuition.

Diana Sieger, executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and past LGR board chair, has encouraged several of her employees to pursue LGR. She thinks that the benefits of sending an employee through the program far outweigh the company's expenditures for tuition and time off.

"The people in my office that have gone through it are really motivated not just to learn more about the community, but they're really motivated, too, in their own development," she said. One of her employees, for example, has become much more confident in offering her opinions and insight during discussions. Sieger said that by working closely with the other LGR participants to understand the community, the employee also achieved a better understanding of her own place in it. That has made her a stronger, more confident individual.

Perhaps more important are the networking opportunities that the program provides.

"There are some bonds that people have made that have lasted for many years," she said. For employees of the state's oldest community foundation, that can be very advantageous. But Sieger said those connections are beneficial for anyone who is interested in the well-being of Grand Rapids. That's one of the reasons she is quick to recommend the program.

"I'd say it's the quickest way and the most comprehensive way for a person in any company to really get up to speed with what's going on in the community and make some significant inroads in the community," Sieger said. "There's probably no other program that can do that."

The success of Leadership Grand Rapids has spawned offshoots for specialized groups. Inside Grand Rapids was the brainchild of Benz and her 1988 LGR classmates. Since its implementation in 1993, more than 300 participants have graduated from the condensed two-and-a-half day program. Many of them go on to enroll in LGR. There is also a Senior Leadership Grand Rapids, similar to the standard LGR program but emphasizing the importance of older West Michiganders' contributions to the community.

Kevin Stotts, executive director of the LGR programs, is now working on a new project: formalizing an alumni network of program graduates. He said that participants' activity in the community tends to wane two or three years after graduation from LGR. He hopes that by strengthening the alumni network, he will be able to encourage graduates to remain actively involved in community affairs, and also to reinvest their time into bettering the LGR program.

To learn more about Leadership Grand Rapids, visit www.grandrapids.org/lgr or call Stotts at (616) 771-0317. BJX

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