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Civic leadership classes produce great benefits for Maine

The 18th annual session just concluded, with the author's wife among the graduates.

Last week I attended the graduation luncheon for the Sigma Class of the Institute for Civic Leadership. Those of you familiar with the Greek alphabet for which each of the ICL's Leadership Classes is designated will recognize that the Sigma Class is the 18th.

As there is a new nine-month class of 30 or so each fall, this means that ICL has now trained some 500 leaders in the Greater Portland area over the past 18 years.

I have long been a fan of the program, hearing of its merits from friends who are graduates. This year, however, I got a much richer sense of the program because my wife Sally was a member of the Sigma Class.

A friend and fellow community volunteer who had recently taken the ICL course encouraged Sally to apply. There is a serious application process and a significant cost if one is accepted – though ICL does provide scholarship assistance for community leaders who would otherwise be unable to attend.

The Leadership Intensive, as it is called, is targeted at mid-level to senior managers from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

It is a well-designed, hands-on approach to collaborative leadership. Its graduates are a virtual who's who of Greater Portland business and community leadership.

Sally's class fit this profile. There were managers from leading companies like Wright Express and Unum, and non-profits such as the Chewonki Foundation. There were first-time entrepreneurs and other veteran community volunteers like Sally.

There was also a young leader from the Sudanese community. The class was a nice mix of youth and maturity -- on balance, a lot like Greater Portland itself.

Sally had a wonderful growth experience. She enjoyed learning more about collaborative leadership, guided ably by ICL's lead trainer, Laura Moorehead.

She was transformed by the group's three-day Outward Bound experience last fall. Sally was apprehensive about Outward Bound, set in the mountains of Newry. She knew it involved lots of challenging teamwork drills, ropes course heights and a solo overnight.

While Sally loves the outdoors, she has trouble sleeping in the best of times. Our kids and I refer to her sleeping rituals as the "Princess and the Pea" syndrome. She knew it would be a long three days from the perspective of rest.

Her actual experience was quite magical. The powerful trust and teamwork that Outward Bound generated gave Sally one of those once-in-a-lifetime highs.

She returned from Newry feeling thoroughly renewed, with passion for the mission and faith in her Sigma classmates to tackle whatever problems lay ahead.

The capstone of each class's experience is a four-month community service project in which they break into five- to seven-person teams and solve a particular problem posed by an ICL community partner. In Sally's case, this was a problem posed by Opportunity Maine, a particularly innovative non-profit run by Clifford Ginn – not surprisingly, an ICL grad himself.

Sally's team chose the task of working with a town in Maine to create a municipal energy committee.

After meeting with Opportunity Maine to understand the task, Sally's group determined a course of action that involved finding a promising town in the area with which to partner and working with them to establish a committee that would begin to put into practice "green" energy principles.

The group dutifully applied the principles of collaborative leadership that they had learned. They found a good partner in the town of Casco and, over several months, were successful in getting an energy committee up and running.

Sally learned that collaborative leadership is a long and sometimes frustrating process. Trying to get consensus from a diverse group like a town council and interested citizens (and one's own teammates) requires tact and diplomacy. It is not for the impatient; however, it yields wonderful results.

On balance, the ICL Leadership year was a powerful learning experience for Sally. Clearly, ICL is building a significant set of community leaders who know how to work together across organizational boundaries to solve community problems.

They even have their own set of code words by which they communicate, as "lean in" or "Let's do a Plus Delta" on this problem (apparently this has something to do with pluses and minuses).

From my perspective it is nice to see a community leadership program with such staying power. It is not easy. However, under the leadership of Executive Director Jan Kearce, ICL seems well positioned to continue its fine work.

It is to be hoped that its most difficult question will be how to name subsequent classes once it exhausts the Greek alphabet.