Building stronger communities through better leadership

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Vibrant and healthy communities don't spontaneously emerge; they are the result of dedicated groups of people investing their time and energy for the benefit of all. Of course, any group that wants to work effectively toward a common goal needs strong leadership, someone to help chart the course and then encourage and inspire others to join in. While some people might be considered 'born leaders', most need a bit of guidance in turning their ideas and enthusiasm into action. Over the past few years, community leadership programs have been sprouting up across Canada, hoping to do just that. The first such program began in Vancouver in 1991. Since then, fourteen others have emerged in major centres nationwide.

Bringing people together to fulfill a community need

There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things in the community," says David Holtzman, executive director of Leadership Vancouver. "But so often, people get stuck looking at the short term where it is really important to look bigger-picture and longer term. The feeling was that there was a need for leadership and getting people more involved in the community, really being better citizens." Leadership Vancouver was co-founded by Volunteer Vancouver and the Vancouver Board of Trade and was loosely modeled on a similar leadership program in Seattle. Much like the other leadership programs operating in Canada, Leadership Vancouver gathers a class of approximately 30-40 people who spend selected days during a nine month period learning about the issues facing their community, building skills to deal with them, and forging partnerships with community organizations.

"We really do try to select people based on shown leadership or emerging leadership skills and abilities. I would say that the people we get into the program are going to do amazing things in the community anyway," says Holtzman. "Where I think the impact is, is that the program helps people to learn more about themselves, build confidence, understand how connected we all are, and also develop a team of people they can call on who work in different businesses and different sectors when they have something they feel is important to accomplish." To help participants build those important networks, the leadership programs all make a deliberate effort to bring together a mix of participants from various backgrounds, including people from government, nonprofit, and the private sector. Once a group of participants is selected, they are required to attend a series of meetings, usually held monthly, where they explore such topics as self-leadership, the interdependence among all sectors of the community, and cultural respect. In addition, the group usually divides into teams which then each focus on a specific project that will impact their community.

Going to the root cause and aiming for transformational change

One of the main objectives of leadership programs is to encourage people to find solutions to community problems rather than providing a temporary fix. "What we are looking for is people who can cooperate across sectors to go to root causes rather than simply slapping more Band-Aids on more open wounds," says Susie Sparks, director of Leadership Calgary. We're getting people who understand that we don't have the luxury of doing that anymore in our community." Holtzman agrees. "Some people have been very involved with specific charities and realize that the need isn't going to go way unless certain things are addressed at more of a core level. If you address the problem rather than fix it temporarily you are going for a solution that may be transformational."

Of course, the leadership program is only a first step toward long-term solutions. What happens after the participants graduate is key. "I would say the most important thing about these programs is the alumni network," says Sparks. The program is excellent as far as wrapping people's heads around the idea of transformational leadership but it's where they take that leadership that really counts. We nurture the alumni network deliberately and have something going on at least once a month. We are also very collaborative with leadership programs in other Canadian cities."

Balancing program goals with participants' expectations

Since many of Canada's leadership programs began fairly recently, thanks to seed funding from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, there has been a bit of a learning curve for some of the newer groups. One of our challenges is attracting participants," says Kim Zacaruk, manager of Leadership Regina, which just graduated its first group in June. "We really have to look at getting our name out there and developing a brand so that when people hear 'Leadership Regina' they think, 'oh yes, I know what that is and it's a really good program'." She also says facilitators need to be clear about what participants should expect when they come out of the program and what they should work on. "At our next orientation we will speak in-depth about how to get the most out of each session. We may have neglected that before, thinking that because they are adult learners they wouldn't need that, but they do need a learning template."

Susie Sparks says that one of the lessons Leadership Calgary learned very quickly is that if you want to attract the potential leaders of your community, it is important for them to take control of the program and nurture their particular passions around community development. "In our first year we basically gave them a packaged program which made them very passive learners, and frankly, quite uninvolved. We now leave the program planning up to the current participants so they can decide what it is we are going to learn about in a very deep and meaningful way in that particular year. This makes them extremely active learners."

Zacaruk came to much the same realization after hearing feedback from Leadership Regina's first graduates. "There was a lot of information given to them, and perhaps not as much time to be really hands-on and working in reflective groups." Having reviewed participant feedback, she says that about 80% of the original content will remain for the next class, but that they are also building in more time for them to talk and discuss as a group.

Kathryn Andrews-Clay, manager of Leadership Ottawa, which began in 2001, agrees that expectations must be discussed at the outset. "Sometimes it is a bit hard to define exactly what a community leadership program is and what people will get out of it because everyone will take something different from the program; it is really very personal," she says. "The one thing we have to clarify is that it is the journey, not the destination, that is important. It really is about the interaction, and how participants got to that endpoint, that is important and where the learning really happens."

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