In Birmingham, AL, a group of community health leaders trained by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) is finishing plans for a permanent community garden adjacent to Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. Their launch of a garden last summer was so successful that it attracted not only dozens of patients, many of them uninsured, but donors who gave $20,000 to expand it.

Participants in this project say the garden, which the community owns and tends, would not be in existence without their involvement in Ladder to Leadership, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in collaboration with CCL. This four-year initiative provides free leadership training for emerging leaders of community-based, health-related nonprofits in vulnerable communities – an effort to prevent leadership gaps when baby-boomer senior executives retire. Few nonprofits have money for leadership development as staffs work to meet the increasing demand for healthcare services at a time of tight financial resources.

“The project work serves as a live laboratory for the fellows to practice the leadership skills they are learning in the classroom,” says Lynn Fick-Cooper, CCL’s deputy director of the program. “These emerging leaders come in at a middle place in their organizations and leave confident that they can rise to the highest level.”

Members of the community planting herbs in front of the Cooper Green Mercy entrance.

So far, 213 fellows have been selected for the program, and it has been implemented in eight communities or regions based on local needs: Central New York; Cleveland, OH; Birmingham, AL; Albuquerque, NM; Eastern North Carolina; Portland, OR; Newark, NJ; and Kansas City, KS. Training has been completed in four communities, and the remaining groups will finish this year and in 2012.

During the 16-month comprehensive program, fellows travel to a CCL campus for sessions on key elements of leadership, including collaboration, conflict resolution and decision-making. Each fellow works with a coach and is assigned to a small team to develop an action learning project, which requires fellows to use their developing leadership skills to agree on a local healthcare-related project. The community garden near the Birmingham hospital is an example of one team’s action learning project.

According to an evaluation of the program in three communities, more than 80 percent of the fellows – and their bosses – reported increased confidence and leadership effectiveness.

“I’ve taken a stronger leadership role in the hospital,” says Marty Bohnenkamp, a doctor at the government-owned Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, who completed the program in August 2010 and is involved in the Birmingham garden project. “I’ve honed my skills and I have more confidence in my leadership.”

For more information about the Ladder to Leadership program, contact the National Program Office at 336-286-4580.

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