Investing in transformational leadership

Katherine Tyler Scott

‘It’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ This Native American proverb poignantly characterized many of the residents of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin after the town’s largest employer was purchased by an international company and 500 jobs were lost, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction in employment. However, with support from the local community foundation and an innovative approach to training community leaders, anger and despondency has begun to turn into something more positive.

At a time of serious decline in the cranberry industry, the region’s second largest employer, the losses unleashed a range of emotions – anxiety, fear, anger, sadness – and exposed the community’s historical insularity and dependency. A belief that the Paper Company would always exist had lulled people into a false sense of security. The pain and grief were evident in increasingly hostile public debates, personal attacks on public leaders, distortion of facts, gossip and, in some instances, scapegoating. As one of the previous owners of the Paper Company said, ‘I can’t bear to read the headlines any more.’

Coming to terms with the need for transition

The Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County (CFGSWC) had been engaged in strategic planning when the community was hit with the news of the job losses; it subsequently received $9 million from the sale of company stock, and promises from previous donors for more in the future. Kelly Lucas, the foundation’s president and CEO, saw the economic turmoil and resulting crisis of community confidence as an opportunity to rebuild and revitalize the area. The community foundation was undergoing its own transition from a traditional focus on asset development and grantmaking to focusing on community leadership. The economic crisis created a sense of urgency for action – not action that was cosmetic or a quick fix, but responses that would strengthen the community and have long-lasting results. In response, the community foundation conducted citizen focus groups to determine the primary needs of residents, and found that the number one need was job creation.

‘Making … where unmaking reigns’

The foundation’s president reached out to many individuals and institutions in the community. The foundation formed a collaborative relationship with the Heart of Wisconsin Business Alliance. Together, they created the Community Progress Initiative (CPI), whose purpose was ‘to create an innovative, self-reliant business-friendly culture in a vibrant community with a prosperous local economy’. The foundation realized that job creation was more than a technical challenge; it meant major shifts in community attitudes and culture. The courage to do this occurred at a time of ‘making and making again where unmaking reigns’, as Adrienne Rich writes in her poem Natural Resources.

Using an asset-based approach to culture change, municipalities were given technical support and consultation in envisioning the future. As CPI grew, so did the community’s sense of efficacy. The confidence of residents increased and they began to believe they could affect the health and destiny of the region. Industry clusters focusing on aspects of economic development were created, an entrepreneurial ‘boot camp’ was developed to inspire the creation of business and study tours were organized to visit other countries, like Ireland, which were overcoming significant conflict and economic adversity. Community education forums on relevant topics and issues, such as the New Speakers Series, were offered free to the community.

When the community foundation shared the work of CPI with the Ford Foundation, it found an immediate resonance with Ford’s own history and core values in supporting economic development worldwide. Linetta Gilbert, Ford Foundation programme officer, understood the influence that a foundation can have on building leadership and encouraging communities to address difficult issues and arrive at solutions considerate of the common good. She played a significant role in the transformation. Kelly describes Linetta as ‘a leadership mentor and a provocateur’, raising tough questions that helped the CFGSWC to examine what it was doing and how it could do more, especially in the areas of social justice and racial equity in the community.

Linetta heard in Kelly’s vision and the described work of CPI an opportunity to help develop a model of transformational community development. This conversation led to an important collaboration and mutually supportive relationship – one aligned with Ford’s vision of social justice and equity in philanthropic activity. Ford funding enabled the CFGSWC to expand its vision of community and leadership development through CPI and to launch the ALI initiative (see below). The Ford Foundation’s mission ‘to invest in innovative people and innovative institutions’ provided CFGSWC with opportunities to test new ideas with leaders who had bold strategies for addressing serious problems in their communities.

The need to equip community leaders with new skills – enter ALI

These efforts and resources were making an impact, but something seemed still to be missing. Once again, the CFGSWC listened and the number one need was leadership. While there was evident leadership within the towns already, what were missing were leaders equipped with the skills required to deal with adaptive challenges – those issues that lack clarity, seem intractable, and are very complex. Certainly, changing the culture from insularity to openness, from homogeneity to diversity, would not be easy, but if there was any hope of it happening, it would depend on equipping existing leaders with new, adaptive skills.

To accomplish this, the community foundation worked with Ki ThoughtBridge, a company specializing in an integrated approach to leadership development. Using the Integrated Model of Leadership©, Ki ThoughtBridge developed the Advanced Leadership Institute (ALI). Over a hundred community leaders have gone through ALI and are catalysts in the transformation of the community culture. Three ALI groups received training in Leading Change, Collaboration, Communication, Planning, Vocational Discernment and Conflict Resolution. Upon completion of the Institute, leaders have a deeper understanding of what it means to be ‘trustees of their communities’ and of their own gifts and limitations. They each have a plan of action with identified goals and objectives that will benefit the greater community.

CleanGreenWelcomingTeamEach group has developed and implemented significant educational, environmental, communication and business development initiatives, through projects such as Speak Your Peace; Citizens for a Clean, Green, and Welcoming Community (pictured right); and Mid-State Technical College Technology Park. Alumni select initiatives to which they commit time, talent and money based on their understanding of the values, interests and needs of the community. Duplication of effort is discouraged; participation in something beyond individual self-interest is vital.

The tools provided through ALI have been used in many instances. Kathy Alft, the Clerk of Grand Rapids, and Jean Young, the Wisconsin Rapids Alderman, have worked together using their training to reduce conflict and build trust. ‘We helped each other use the Seven Elements Model© and even identified each other’s alternatives to negotiation!’ says Kathy. Jean has taken a high-level position in the state and uses these tools on a daily basis in multi-party, complex negotiations. When another paper mill closed in Port Edwards, the Village Engineer, Joe Terry, created a process that resulted in a regional transportation plan with the support of ten municipalities. Terry credits the adaptive leadership skills and network acquired in ALI with equipping him to manage this change and to develop the process that led to the support for the regional transportation plan. 

Stories like these exemplify the culture change occurring in Wisconsin Rapids. Community leaders know and trust each other more, and when issues arise, they are more inclined to see a larger context and use their new understanding of interconnectedness in problem-solving to benefit everyone.

As Kelly Lucas and the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County Board know, there is still a great deal of work to be done, but clearly transformation has begun. The region now has a cadre of leaders with the tools and skills needed to deal with adversity in ways that increase social and economic capital. The investment in leadership has been an investment in economic and community development.

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner at Ki ThoughtBridge. Email

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