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Leadership effort aims to prepare community for future

Facilitator Patrick Overton speaks to participants in New Richmond's first Leadership Trust Initiative session last week. The training program, coordinated by the New Richmond Area Community Foundation and the New Richmond Area Front Porch Project, will continue over the next year.

A community leader feels frustrated with decisions made by local officials.

He gets angry, expresses his displeasure and then stops being involved.

It's not an uncommon pattern for small municipalities, which rely heavily on business and political leaders to get things done.

People get burned out if things don't go their way. Emotions run high when differing opinions are aired on critical issues. People drop out under the stress of community change.

The Leadership Trust Initiative in New Richmond has been established to try and counteract those negative forces fighting against community building.

"When I first came to New Richmond, it was clear to me that there were some incredibly gifted, creative, giving people in this community," said facilitator Patrick Overton, director of the Front Porch Institute. "What seemed to be lacking was something to get everyone connected, working toward the same goal."

Almost two years ago, Overton suggested that the community sponsor a citizen-leader development program to help get people thinking about ways to promote the common good.

"It is great to finally get it started," he said.

The initiative was made possible, in part, due to a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation. The New Richmond Area Front Porch Project will receive $50,000 a year over each of the next three years to develop the community's current and future leadership.

"The core premise is the belief that healthy communities consist of healthy individuals and healthy individuals find creative and constructive ways to be engaged in their community," Overton said. "LTI is designed to challenge participants to strengthen their individual leadership skills while, at the same time, learning new ways to work together."

The first students in the year-long program met for their first class last week. Ten current and future community leaders are signed up for the Tuesday LTI and 24 are meeting on Wednesdays.

Local attorney Gary Bakke helped set the tone for participants.

He told the group that, years ago, he'd been frustrated by decisions related to the Friday pool facility, city planning efforts and operation of the New Richmond Area Foundation. As a result, Bakke said he began to shy away from being involved in community projects and debates.

"I've had my personal frustrations and I've not responded appropriately," he admitted. "Everybody has been angry. The question is, are you mature enough to handle it. I want people to learn from the mistakes I made."

Through his involvement with the Front Porch Project, Bakke said he's come to realize that people will have a different opinion about the best way to handle a particular situation.

He's convinced that, with respect to civic issues, no one is right or wrong in their opinion and there are many ways to approach a problem.

So it's important for everyone to listen to each other and treat each other with respect as a decision is made, he explained.

"Everybody has the same goal ... that being making a better community," he said. "You have to give everybody credit for meaning well."

Overton said Bakke was the perfect kick-off speaker for the LTI program.

"He really wowed all of us with his presentation," he said. "It was personal, challenging and heartfelt, driving home the real meaning of leadership and community. It was inspiring."

The Leadership Trust Initiative will conduct a total of nine sessions through March 2010 to prepare local business leaders and local volunteers for the future.

The key, according to Overton, is to make sure people practice "civil discourse" while debating the issues of the day.

"It is clear these individuals came ready to work," Overton said of the first session. "They are determined to make a difference in their community and they are willing to do the hard work necessary to make this happen. They aren't going to just sit there and take notes. They will be active learners and I have no doubt they will be pushing me hard at every session to give them more and to make their investment of time worthwhile."

Among future topics that will be discussed at LTI are good listening behaviors, leading community change, time management, creativity, navigating troubled waters and rehearsing leadership.

"There is a crisis of leadership in the nation today," Overton told LTI participants. "We're not going to turn you into leaders, because you already are leaders. We want to help you be better leaders.

"We're going to throw many ideas at you. You have to figure it out for yourself. It's our job to challenge you to think, feel and explore."

He encouraged participants to always conduct themselves with integrity, so that others trust their leadership and will follow even if they don't always agree.

Without that trust, however, "everything disintegrates," he said.

The LTI group has scheduled upcoming sessions in June, July, September, October, December, January 2010, February 2010 and March 2010.