Pitfalls and challenges – What does it take to nurture leadership? The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce hosts the 21st year of Leadership Missoula.

Kim Latrielle, the CEO of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, recalls the meeting that started Leadership Missoula.

It was more than 20 years ago, Latrielle remembers, when a group of Missoula’s longtime business leaders paid a visit to the Missoula Chamber. These were people who had long been involved in their businesses and in the community, so it was a surprise to hear their message to the Chamber: They were tired. It was time, they said, for the burden they had been carrying to be divided among more shoulders. They had heard about leadership-development courses that other states had started, and they wanted the Chamber to check them out to see if Missoula could launch its own program.

By Mike McInally in the Fall ’03 Missoulian Montana InBusiness Quarterly

This fall, about 40 Missoula residents will start the 21st year of Leadership Missoula, the program that owes its beginnings to that meeting more than 20 years ago. Latrielle says the basic format of Leadership remains the same: Participants gather for beginning and ending retreats, and spend one day a month in between retreats learning about various segments of the community. The goal is to groom residents to assume various leadership roles throughout the community. In fact, the leadership work begins immediately for each class, which is charged with planning the sessions for the following year’s Leadership Missoula program.

Since this issue of InBusiness focuses on how business people can become increasingly involved as community leaders, it seemed logical to invite Latrielle and former chairs of Leadership Missoula for a discussion of those issues. But we couldn’t find a time when everyone could gather in the same room. So we tried something different: An e-mail conversation with a number of folks.

Participants in the discussion included Latrielle; Fran Albrecht of Watson Children’s Shelter; Bob Homer of Bitterroot Motors; Mark Dvarishkis of the Missoula office of the Farm Credit Bureau; and Missoula attorneys Bob Terrazas and Shane Vannatta. Edited highlights of the discussion follow:

Western Montana InBusiness: Leadership Missoula is devoted to trying to create the next generation of business leaders in the community. But is it harder today for business people to step into leadership roles in the community? Why or why not? What are the barriers that prevent business people from civic involvement?

Kim Latrielle: I do feel it is harder to step into community leadership today. My reasons are as follows:

No. 1 – Strong foundations: Historically Missoula was founded on a group of very strong leaders that not only worked together, in many cases they were good friends too – they all knew each other or of each other, so business or community needs were just a phone call away. What I’m trying to say is that in the past business or community needs could be addressed by a few phone calls, donations of time and money and the project was under way in a matter of hours. Today, our leaders come from many types of businesses and are different ages and do not know each other in many cases. …
No. 2 – Time: Today’s society is very busy. Both spouses often are working, or have kids, entertainment and social responsibilities. It leaves little time for volunteering. In the past, meetings and planning went on for a couple of hours; no one was in a hurry. Today, you’re lucky to get one hour and the agenda better be set and fast-paced or you’ll lose the volunteers. Everyone has good intentions to give their time but it usually falls to a few to do the work. Historically, there was that friendship bond and the joy of spending time together so it didn’t seem like they were giving extra as they just lived it day by day.
No. 3 – Acceptance: Today’s leaders are very vulnerable in volunteer roles. In the past, as I’ve mentioned, many of Missoula’s leaders were best friends or at least knew of each other. Today’s leaders in many cases have never met or have no knowledge of the person they are sitting next to. This causes anxiety and hesitation in some people to not volunteer as it is the unknown. Leadership Missoula spends nine months trying to create those bonds of friendship and trust to allow these individuals to feel the support of a group and that of acceptance with whatever they decide to participate in.

Bob Terrazas: I see Leadership Missoula’s purpose as trying to develop community leaders – not only business leaders – who appear from a variety of backgrounds including business. I do not see that it is any different today than 10, 15, 20 years or more ago for business people to step into community-leadership roles. The hurdles, if any, seem to be timeless – time, commitment, politics, perception, skill, vision, passion, purpose.

Mark Dvarskiris: What we have seen in my business, and I think many others have too, is that we have centralized offices and serve a much larger geographic area. Where we once had offices in Kalispell, Ronan, Missoula, Hamilton and Deer Lodge, now we have a single office in Missoula and we handle a larger territory than was previously handled by the several local offices. That fact obviously physically took many branch managers out of the outlying communities that would have been expected to be community leaders.

And for me, my time is so divided I don’t have as much to devote specifically to the Missoula community. I think that speaks to both the time and acceptance issues voiced by Kim. The acceptance issue is compounded by the mobile society we are in. I feel that in the past the stalwart “Leaders” were born and bred in the community, or at least lived there many years. The corporate culture today encourages mobility, especially if you are looking for advancement. So many of the people that would typically be in positions that would be seen as potential community leaders are new to the community and many who have been in the community for a few years see potential transfer in the future and are hesitant to step into leadership roles.

Couple that with the other observation Kim makes about time – during the middle part of many people’s careers they are raising families and tend to devote more time in that area than toward community/social commitments. It appears to me that people further along in their careers are the ones who typically become the leaders. …

Finally, I find that this form of communication we are using right now, e-mail, is a hindrance to developing leaders. It is extremely efficient, but it doesn’t allow the person-to-person interaction that, in my opinion, really allows the relationships that make community leaders develop. As is demonstrated by the hurdles we faced in trying to get together for this meeting, people are busy and you can use a computer to get the information even when you can’t get the people together but that is all you get, the information.

Fran Albrecht: I believe that Leadership Missoula uniquely provides a relationship center for business and nonprofit professionals. This allows those graduates a “safe” group of colleagues to call upon and interact with, for business and community involvement. I like that LM brings leaders to the front of the class sessions to excite, engage and model leadership and involvement. I am also pleased to see that LM is focusing on the channels for getting involved. I believe that with the complexities of our growing community, the need for leadership and civic involvement has increased.

There is, however, a limitation on time. Dual-income families are a mainstay, which does not allow time for involvement, particularly when raising a family. So I would agree, that the barriers include time constraints and in some cases, a lack of an intimate network. There can also be a barrier surrounding business image when one gets involved in a political leadership arena, or a potentially controversial project or cause.

On a similar note, I observed my father getting involved in different leadership and community roles because he knew it was the right thing to do. His character was appreciated and secondarily, the relationships benefited his business. There is a corporate culture that believes in giving back to the community – which is good. Sometimes the larger corporations, however, are removed from the local community needs and issues.

Overall, businesses are realizing more and more that getting involved is a win-win.

Shane Vannatta: I don’t think it is harder for people to step into leadership roles; I’ve found the opposite to be true. So many community organizations seem to be struggling to find qualified people interested in devoting time to their cause. I think that as long as you have the desire and a little time, the opportunities for involvement and leadership are abundant.

Why isn’t the younger generation stepping into leadership roles? Well, I think that there is a growing general detachment in our society from community, civic and political matters. I have heard many faculty involved in high schools and universities comment that students do not want to get involved with extracurricular activities (athletics excepted) as much as they use to. Service organizations have particularly felt the lack of involvement. Those students of today are expected to be our leaders for tomorrow, and many want nothing to do with service.

That being said, I think there is a general sense of isolation that is prevalent both in our community and in our nation. No longer do people get out and meet their neighbors, or welcome new members to the neighborhood. People are simply content to stay within the artificial borders of their yard, their job, etc., rather than reach out and actually build community.

The barriers I believe prevent business people from civic involvement are largely one of experience. People who are not involved in high school and college remain uninvolved when they enter the business community. I can only draw on my experience, which was growing up in a small town with a small high school; all of the students were expected to be involved; otherwise we would never have had a functioning basketball team, school paper, student council, etc. I have carried that expectation with me to this day.

InBusiness: It seems to me that power in Missoula (and I don’t think this is isolated to Missoula by any means) is more decentralized than it was in years past, when – as Kim says – Missoula’s leaders all knew each other and knew how to get things done. What implications does that have for businesspeople trying to step forward as community leaders? Does it make that transition harder? Easier?

Vannatta: Hmmm, a decentralized leadership. I’m not sure that is good or bad. Not having lived in the time when George Caras and the boys were creating parks out of river islands and the like, I don’t know that I can make an accurate comparison to today’s climate. When I heard about the creation of the Caras Riverfront Park, however, I got the impression that there may have been a more centralized leadership of “good ole boys” who ran the community. If that belief is correct, I suspect it was perhaps more difficult to move into a leadership position unless you knew the right people, had the right job and maintained an “appropriate” social standing. In this case, I think a centralized leadership may have been more detrimental than helpful to community involvement.

The only problem I can see with a decentralized leadership, is the difficulty of moving up to increasingly higher levels of community service with commensurately higher levels of responsibility, challenge, etc. It is my experience that the “right hand” in Missoula service organizations often doesn’t know what the “left hand” is doing, which also leads to a duplication of efforts, but that is not my point. You can establish yourself as a successful leader in one group, but that reputation doesn’t necessarily follow you if you switch groups or get involved in another group. Often times, you may burn out in one service area and want to switch, but then you start out from ground zero. It’s a bit frustrating from my perspective.

Bob Homer: It depends on what type of leadership roles you are referring to. Many of today’s business leaders are of a more transient nature because of the businesses in the community. Managers come and go more now due to the needs of the corporations. There are still local businesses but many of the leaders there have already “done their time” or are busy trying to run their own business. I do not feel that it is any harder; in fact, it is somewhat easier to be a community leader because there seems to be fewer people willing to take on the responsibility.

Again, though, many people seem to be working harder at their own jobs and may not have as much discretionary time to devote to the community. Many of the people involved in the community are retired or do not have to work for one reason or another. I think there is still an attitude by some of our civic leaders to feel that business people are only civically involved for self-serving reasons instead of looking at them as a resource for their experience and expertise.

InBusiness: That keys onto another theme I wanted to ponder: the tenor of our public life, specifically in Missoula. We all know people who have been vibrant leaders in Missoula life in one arena or another, only to deliberately step back because – in the words of a former boss of mine – they were tired of being run over by trains. You need a certain tolerance for punishment to get involved in public life in any community, but does Missoula insist on more than a pound of flesh, so to speak, from the participants in the public arena?

Terrazas: Public life just about anywhere in the United States is a vicious arena. (But) it appears that Missoula does insist on more than a pound of flesh foparticipating in the public arena and that causes good, well-intentioned people to shrink away and instead golf, fish, travel or move

Albrecht: Once you add the ingredients of time, scrutiny and mudslinging, complexity and frustration – civic involvement, particularly in the political arena holds little appeal.

Vannatta: Many people find it far easier to let someone else do the work, and then jump on the demolition crew to tear it all apart. When it comes to the average citizen, I believe few take the opportunities to inform themselves of the issues.

I also believe that the nature of our news media has turned more toward entertainment for sales, which affects how public issues are perceived. It’s far easier and more saleable news to present the dissenting view of an issue than to give a status report on some service organization’s activities. I mean, I must admit that I am probably more interested in hearing someone give an impassioned plea (and jump off a bridge hooked to a semi-trailer) than to hear what Kiwanis is doing this month. (As an aside, I can still hear “Ila Mae Forebreg reporting” on the radio in my small town droning on about the activities of the local service groups. She would always end her report with, “and a good time was had by all.” Ya know, we always listened.)

InBusiness: What was the appeal of Leadership so that you stayed not just the one year but the additional years as well? What surprised you about the process? What sorts of things would make it better? What lessons can other communities learn about developing business leaders?

Vannatta: First of all, I realized very quickly that LM doesn’t really “create” leaders, I think it gives existing leaders, or individuals interested in community leadership, resources and contacts to help them lead. If LM was about creating leaders, I would think it should have more skills-development activities and discussion about leadership styles during the first year. I feel (and this was echoed to me whenever Kim spoke) that we were leaders just by entering the group; I think that assessment was true since we actually applied to be in the program and paid (often by our employers) a fee to be there.

Second, I think we were encouraged in LM to develop our leadership skills through observation and practice. The first year was spent observing other leaders speaking on specific topics and talking through issues that affected them. The second year of LM was working together to help plan the year for the subsequent class. … It was only after serving as chair of the program that I realized how important the second year was. At the time I was going through the second year, a part of me thought the Chamber was just too cheap to afford staffing to put the program together without volunteer (read “slave”) labor! I now know differently!

Homer: The Leadership program initially was such a wonderful experience. I had the good fortune to meet some lifelong friends and form a real bond with my “class” and all those that came before me. Just a mention of Leadership Missoula would open doors. Most participants feel a bond with the program and the participants in their class. It was a very informative and fun experience. The whole planning process the following year was a way to continue to be involved with many of the people you had just spent a year with.

When I was asked to continue on to be co-chair and chair, I was at first very surprised. I was also very honored. I held the program in high regard and now it was coming under my stewardship. I was lucky that I had an employer that allowed me the time to do the job. For me as a chair, I was able to continue to expand my “class” to include the next three, which has continued to be a real benefit. … Other communities can learn the lesson of “knowledge is power:” Knowledge of the process, the community, the other participants, etc., that make the leadership process a bit easier.

Terrazas: The appeal to remaining involved with the program was to serve the community and have fun. I learned more about my community, different ways to contribute to it, and an abiding respect for those involved in a constellation of ways within the community. It took me out of my comfort zone. I was forced to work cooperatively with people in developing sessions who, on occasion, held dearly some really goofy ideas.

The biggest surprise about the process, and what might make the program better, was struggling with the “leadership” component of Leadership Missoula. What appeared absent initially was an articulated focus on what constitutes leadership. The program focused a lot on Missoula, but not much on how to be a leader except by implication or through osmosis. The grappling continued during my involvement and I think in each succeeding year.

My suspicion is that each program chair brings her/his own ideas about how to address “the leadership” component of the program. How each program participant defines leadership also presents a challenge to focusing on that element of the program. When someone finally discovers the definitive answer to what constitutes leadership in our diverse community, or anywhere, the biggest surprise then will be something else in the program.

The best lesson any other community might draw from the Missoula leadership program is simply to create one. Include nonprofit and for-profit business members, civil servants or public employees, and begin examining your community. Focus also on what it takes and means to be a leader. Expose program participants to as many community leaders as possible from every section of the community. Having a community/business leadership program provides a community with its best chance to help shape its destiny rather than surrendering to the default leadership providers.

Copyright 2003

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