A Better Way to Teach Civic Leadership

The programs we have are pretty good, but they need to keep graduates engaged and deepen their learning.
July 20, 2017
A session at the Association of Leadership Programs' national conference.
A session at the Association of Leadership Programs' national conference. (Facebook/Association of Leadership Programs)
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

If I could change things in cities ... well, the list would be long. But one item in the top 10 would be making community leadership programs better at doing what they set out to do: train people in civic leadership.

I come to my criticism with respect for these programs and some knowledge. I've spoken to dozens of civic leadership programs in the last 35 years. I'm an alumnus of two of them myself. I've studied them on behalf of a foundation. And I'm a member of the national Association of Leadership Programs.

I'm impressed by the people who participate in the programs and those who run them. The participants are exactly who you'd hope they'd be: people in their 30s and 40s who are ready to step up to civic leadership and eager to learn how. The program managers often do their jobs with the skimpiest of resources.

And perhaps it's too much to think people would emerge from these programs ready to lead. We don't expect brand new college graduates to be fully accomplished in their professions. Surely civic leadership demands the same level of on-the-job learning as the law, medicine or city planning.

And, yet, I think community leadership programs could do better.

Their greatest limitation is their structure. Most programs are nine-month affairs with monthly meetings, starting or closing with a retreat. In these sessions, the programs try to shoehorn two massive courses of study. The first is what is called "community awareness," which is an introduction to the community's issues and processes. So a class of 40 might visit the courts to learn how the criminal-justice system works, a charity hospital to learn about health issues, or the mayor's office to learn about the ins and outs of local government.

On top of this, some programs layer a second set of courses dealing with leadership skills. They might include sessions on diversity, team building, group facilitation or conflict resolution -- all things civic leaders need to know to be effective.

That's a huge amount of learning for nine sessions. At the end, graduates are given a certificate, a better grasp of the community's issues, a new set of friends and contacts, and an exhortation to get involved. Then it's time for the leadership program to choose the next class of 40.

What more could a leadership program do? After all, participants' time is limited (most have demanding jobs). The fees they pay barely cover expenses. Few of these programs have other financial resources.

Answer: You could stretch the learning process and take on a third level of leadership training. To do this, you need to create a graduate program that invites alumni to return regularly and deepen their learning.

What would they learn in these sessions? They'd learn about strategy. In the community context, this means where you get started with change, how you overcome the obstacles you're sure to face, and how you assemble the team and resources for the journey.

Where could a cash-strapped leadership program find people to teach this? All around. In every city, there are veteran leaders who would be delighted to explain how they mounted a successful referendum, raised money for building a museum or took on a major community problem like homelessness. Oddly enough, they're rarely asked about these things.

Leadership programs are the natural homes of this transfer of knowledge. And by bringing graduates back on a regular basis for "how-to" seminars, the programs could increase their worth to their communities, deepen alumni support and offer new opportunities for philanthropic and business sponsorships.

More important, when you hear enough of these stories of successful change, you notice they have common elements. That's because in every city there is a path to success, a way good ideas become reality. Collect the stories, mark the path, and in no time the leadership program could do more than educate would-be leaders and award them certificates. It could offer them guidebooks.