Leadership NC brings diverse voices together to improve state

Editor’s note: Christopher Gergen was among those who recently graduated from Leadership North Carolina. Leadership North Carolina is currently accepting applications for its 2017-18 class.

Among the recent graduation ceremonies across the state, there was a unique commencement May 11 in the State Capitol. In the former Old House Chamber, 55 leaders from across the state graduated as the 24th class of Leadership North Carolina.

Established almost a quarter-century ago to help “inform, develop and engage” leaders from all corners of North Carolina, Leadership North Carolina is grounded in a set of values that includes enriching North Carolina through a variety of voices, contributing to local communities, moving together with an eye on the future, and turning knowledge into action.

With the most recent graduating class, there are now more than 1,100 alumni driving local impact – from the mountains to the coast.

Take the most recent “class award” recipient, Paige Sayles. Sayles is director of the Z.B. Collie Foundation in Franklin County and has served on the Franklin County Board of Education since 1998. She is also a board member of the United Way of Franklin County and has established a reputation as an outspoken champion of children and families in the community.

Sayles and her classmates join similarly public-spirited alums such as the current chancellors of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Winston-Salem State University, the former secretary of commerce, and Phil Freelon, the architect of record for the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

To strengthen this public spirit and foster a deeper understanding of the state and its impending issues (with significant doses of fun mixed in), the Leadership North Carolina experience is broken into monthly three-day sessions across the state focusing on different issues.

Kicking off in Boone, the orientation grounded participants in the history of North Carolina and challenged the incoming class to think about their future impact potential while leveraging the broader Leadership NC network.

Though ultimately focused on inspiring action, the ensuing sessions were designed to showcase promising practices, challenge working assumptions, and encourage constructive debate.

The government session in Raleigh, for example, waded right into the separation of powers with Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson, Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham and Robert Stephens, chief legal counsel of former Gov. Pat McCrory. The lesson: While differences exist, we have to find a way to work together for the state’s broader welfare. This was reinforced through “Budgetoplis” – a simulation in which participants wrestled with how to balance social and economic priorities within current budget realities through a process of principled compromise.

The education session in Winston-Salem dove deep into the benefits of early childhood education, the growing challenge of economic immobility of children born into poor households, and the promise of early-college high schools to help break these cycles of poverty.

The health and human services session had participants volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank in Charlotte and then flipped the script through a “Making Ends Meet” simulation in which teams had to shop for a week within the parameters of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Bottom line: Getting enough healthy food on the table for a family of four with food stamps is tough, and we need innovative community strategies to support our most vulnerable.

The experiences and lessons continued during the Economic Development Session in eastern North Carolina, including tours of Aurora’s potash-mining operation (the largest integrated phosphate-mining operation in the world) and the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, which houses the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and has a surprisingly large economic impact on the surrounding region. The session continued in New Bern (birthplace of Pepsi-Cola) with topics ranging from the state’s changing demographics to the importance of agribusiness to our economy to how our workforce needs to adapt to become more entrepreneurial.

The final session, on environmental policy, took place in Asheville – a perfect backdrop given the city’s growing “climate science” industry with the recently launched climate incubator The Collider and Biltmore Estate’s cutting-edge sustainability practices.

From community to community, a striking narrative begins to emerge. Bringing diverse voices together in open and respectful dialogue has tremendous potential for positive change. North Carolina has a vast array of resources and a deep well of committed citizens. Our leadership challenge is to harness this energy to create a better future for our state.

Christopher Gergen is a Founding Partner of HQ Community, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.