Ready, Set, Lead. Creating and Cultivating Leaders with Leadership St. Tammany

It was nearly a decade ago, but I remember the call like it was yesterday. A friend had just graduated from the Leadership St. Tammany program, and she called to encourage me to apply. I was curious, but hesitant. Why me? I had always been one to get involved in volunteer projects and was quite active with the Junior League of Greater Covington, but I was a stay-at-home mom with two young kids. What made me a good candidate for a leadership program? What would I really get out of it?

I would soon find out. My application was accepted, and I became part of a group of 25 people that would meet once a month for nine months for a full day of instruction and activity that opened our eyes to the inner workings of our parish and surrounding areas. The presentations were not only informational, but also inspirational.

The time between sessions couldn’t go by fast enough! My curiosity was peaked—there was always an anticipation of the next “class.” I was eager to spend more time learning with like-minded individuals who were always asking questions and seeking answers to our community’s problems. When I graduated, I felt armed with the resources, contacts and motivation necessary to step up into leadership positions. I was ready to spread the word—and I’ve been spreading it ever since.

Three well-organized programs on the northshore provide annual courses in leadership. Each is now actively searching for qualified candidates. Although their approaches vary slightly, each program’s goal is to train emerging leaders in leadership skills and broaden their understanding of the various governmental, societal, educational, technological and economic systems that impact the northshore. In eastern St. Tammany, the Leadership Northshore program has been operating for 18 years. In the Hammond area, Leadership Tangipahoa boasts 10 years of graduates. And Leadership St. Tammany is marking its 15th year.

Leadership St. Tammany began under the direction of the West St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce, with Diane Winston, then the chamber’s executive director, at the helm. Winston was the heart and soul of the program for years, but found her workload too great after being elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives. Current directors Mark Johnson and Glen Villalobos stepped in. “Yes, we know—it took two men to replace one woman,” laughs Mark. The program is now affiliated with Southeastern Louisiana University, which provides resources and administrative support.

Since 2002, the duo has led a highly respected program that has graduated scores of civic-minded men and women who have gone on to effect positive change in the community. And now they are searching for applicants for LST’s 15th anniversary class.

“We’re searching for current, as well as emerging, leaders,” stresses Glen. “Some who come to the program are influential in the community already, while others have aspirations to become future leaders.”

Mark emphasizes that the program is not only for those who have political aspirations. “In truth, most of the 300-plus graduates work as non-profit organization board members, business leaders, key city or parish employees or volunteers on boards and commissions,” he says. “Often, participants are simply activists involved in the arts, churches, public and private education and environmental issues.”

One of the main objectives is for each participant to identify what matters most to them in their community. The program’s philosophy is that that insight is best gained by first understanding an overall view of society and learning how community systems relate to one another. Following a weekend retreat where participants create a simulated society, the class meets monthly for a full-day study of various aspects of community systems. Subjects range from education to economic development to the judiciary sector.

The sessions are nothing but captivating. “These are not classroom settings,” stresses Don Lagarde, Leadership St. Tammany’s current board chairman. “The simulations, exercises and encounters experienced by class members allow them to learn about St. Tammany from St. Tammany. Many classes include visits and presentations from people who helped make the parish what it is today and from those who are working on what it will be in the future.”

Glen adds, “We’re very experiential. We do field studies a lot, such as sending out participants with cameras to take photos of what they consider best and worst about the parish.”
Class sessions often take place at sites significant to the subject matter, such as a visit to the parish jail and drug court or a trip to the science lab at a junior high school. “I remember that I was really affected by our visit to the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center,” says Don, a 2005 graduate. “To see those children in solitary confinement was heart wrenching. It’s not exactly the kind of place you’re going to see on a tour with the parish tourist commission.”

One day focuses on non-profit organizations that serve the needy. At the end of that session, current class member John Donahue noted that effectively addressing the root causes of poverty, homelessness or any other social ill requires coordination among government agencies, non-profits, the education system, law enforcement, the churches and the judicial system. “This revelation—that there is interdependence amongst [all] of the different social systems and that actions or weaknesses in any one system has an effect on each of the other systems—is one of the key lessons learned in Leadership St. Tammany,” says Mark.

This understanding helps students appreciate how the positions of various entities may differ on any one situation. “It is a gratifying moment when the ‘light comes on’ and a non-profit worker or government employee comes to understand how elected officials are so often cast into ‘no win’ situations.
Conversely, it is also nice when a powerful government official or business leader realizes how important our social service non-profits, such as our churches, are to the very fabric of our society and to our quality of life.”

Class members are often inspired to affect change in their community before the course is even completed. This year’s class collected and delivered toys for needy children at Christmas. “The program really takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you in a state of awareness,” says Don. “It becomes really hard to sit back and do nothing when you see a need.”

The efforts have not gone unnoticed by the community at large. This past year alone, over 150 businesses, agencies and individuals have contributed their expertise, use of facilities or other resources. Students are most often sponsored by their employers as well, receiving financial aid to enroll, along with paid time off to attend the monthly sessions. Even leaders in Baton Rouge have taken notice. The classes often enjoyed breakfast at the governor’s mansion during their trip to the state capitol. Governor Jindal has welcomed the class to the mansion this year.

This year’s class will graduate June 12 at a celebratory banquet. Don says that while the graduates may not initially know exactly how they will apply all they’ve learned, it won’t take very long for them to discover their mission as leaders. “Truthfully, after graduation, your mission finds you. You come out so excited and ready to give—you’re a marked person! The community is ready and waiting with open arms to provide you direction because they know just what you have to offer.”

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