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According to Nancy Coffee, president and CEO of The Leadership Academy in Memphis, Tenn., nothing is more transformative for a city than strong and energized leadership. Coffee recently spoke to business and community leaders at CCL’s “Lessons of Leadership” forum about the Academy’s newest initiative, the Fellows Program.

This program brings together emerging leaders from business, nonprofit and faith communities to develop leadership skills. Each year, the Fellows Program accepts 60 participants who show a personal eagerness to take on the challenges of the city, said Coffee.

Many times, the Fellows come into the program with personal ambition for civic engagement but simply do not know how to put their passion into action, Coffee explained. The Academy gives them the tools, experiences and exposure to create positive change, she said.

The program involves a one-year commitment and includes a range of learning sessions. These sessions include a 2-day CCL experience; a session titled “Memphis 101” — a social history of the city; a series called the “Real Deal,” which sheds light on how work happens in the city; and a “Team Trek” outdoor adventure. However, the majority of the fellows work on a Community Action Plan, which has proven to be a tangible project with a positive impact.

Since the Fellows Program was established in 2004, these emerging leaders have created and implemented community action plans that touch all sectors of Memphis society. Recent projects include an internship program for at-risk youth; computer/technical advising for public school principals; a non-partisan, comprehensive election guide; Memphis Connect, which is a website to match newcomers with others in the city; and a middle school program to help kids imagine and prepare for higher education.

Fellows themselves bring a diverse set of interests, talents and perspectives to their Community Action Plans. The current cadre of 200 Fellows represents 130 companies and ranges in age from 24 to 47. About 40% are minorities, including African Americans, Asians, and Latinos. Half are Memphis natives; the other half hail from other parts of the country and world.

Next on the horizon for The Leadership Academy – creating a similar program for an older age group. Coffee said, “We want to catch people pre-retirement, as their careers are winding down. The kids are out of the house; they have more time; they’re making decisions about meaningful retirement and second careers. We want them to see how to have a role in the city and their community.”

So what can you do in your own community to create or reenergize leadership initiatives? Coffee offers 4 suggestions:

  1. Incorporate specific projects. This gets community members engaged and focused on specific needs and solutions.
  2.  Let people uncover their own personal passions for leadership change. Don’t force any particular issue on someone.
  3. Manage expectations about what is possible. Set strict milestone measurements and keep the scope of work under control.
  4. Make the “people” connections, mixing newcomers with area natives, emerging leadership with established authority, individual talents and interests with organizations in need. And engage established leaders to serve in pivotal roles throughout the process.

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