For 30 years now, up and comers have come up through the Leadership Pensacola program. Commonly known by its loose acronym, LeaP is intended to familiarize “emerging leaders” in the community.
After three decades, the program has graduated more than 1,200 people. It has provided them the knowledge needed to successfully navigate the Pensacola community, both socially and in business. It has also strived to instill in those individuals a sense of servitude toward their community.
“It’s essentially a community immersion program,” explained Jennifer McFarren, who manages the program for the Greater Pensacola Chamber.
For ten months each year, LeaP participants learn about their community. They meet with local elected officials and take a field trip to Tallahassee. They work together on a class project.
By the end of the program each year, LeaPers are bestowed the keys. Graduates are passed the torch. This is by design. These are the people who will guide this community into the future.
“I think you could identify some of the leaders that came out of the 70s, 80s and 90s and somewhere on their resume would be a year spent in LeaP,” said Rick Dye, one of the program’s original architects.
A Long Time Ago
In the late seventies and early eighties, a group of local citizens began a conversation. Its premise was simple: where would the future’s leaders come from?
The powers that be—Dye labels them as the “old guard”—were growing older. Their tight-knit ranks needed to accommodate those who would come after them.
“The fact that decisions were still being made by people who knew each other and played golf with each other and did business with each other kind of excluded other people in the community,” said Dye.
Earle Bowden, another member of the original LeaP steering committee and former editor of the Pensacola News Journal, is more blunt.
“To be frank with you, you had a bunch of old men running the town,” he said. “—businessmen and old-time politicians that were making things happen at the time.”
In December of 1981, the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce formed a task force to establish a leadership-building program. The organization wanted a vehicle through which to impart experience and knowledge to the younger generation.
“Blend the experience of the older folks with the eagerness of the younger folks,” Dye explained.
The original steering committee that engineered the framework for the LeaP program included Dye, Bowden, Dick Appleyard, Isabella Grimes, Ed Hartsell, Ginger Bass and Dr. Donald Jones.Together they set about engineering an experience aimed at producing community leaders.
“What we wanted to do was give people a well rounded education of their community and how it works,” said Appleyard.
The purpose of the program would be to give participants the necessary tools to slip into leadership roles in the Pensacola community. The program would serve participants, while also teaching participants to serve the community.
“It helps them in their businesses, of course, but more than that it helps them learn how to contribute to their community,” said Appleyard. “They know Pensacola better, they’re networked better and because of that they’re better able to serve.”
The leadership program would be geared towards new blood. Selected newcomers would be welcomed and given the insight needed to navigate the community.
“There was this thinking in the background that we need to recognize who these new leaders are,” Dr. Jones said. “—let’s plan for the future, let’s find out who these folks are. They’re doing their thing, but they’re in the woodwork, let’s pull ’em out.”
Jones described a “gap” between the older and younger folks. Emerging community leaders were apparently separated from the current powers that be by a generational gulf.
“As a group we all saw a lot of great talent come into Pensacola and there was a need to get them integrated into the community,” Appleyard said.
Whereas society’s positions of influence were at the time filled with mostly white males, the LeaP program also served to usher more females and minorities into leadership roles and diversify the Pensacola pool.
“I do think this program represents a transition from the old guard to a new kind of leadership,” said Bowden. “It spreads the power around.”
After the steering committee hammered out the curriculum, the program got rolling in 1982. The first class of LeaP graduates emerged in the fall of 1983.
“LeaP was a joyful challenge for us to try to put it together and come up with a curriculum that would work,” said Bowden. “It was a lot of long meetings, but when it happened—that first class—it was really successful.”
“Frankly, it was a hell of a lot of work getting it started,” he said. “But it’s like a locomotive, it’s got a lot of energy. Once you get it moving it just sort of takes off.”
Since its inception, LeaP’s mission has remained the same. The organization is meant to educate and inspire.
Bowden used to sum it up aptly when he would give the keynote address to another year’s graduating class.
“I talked about the importance of participation,” he reflected.
LeaPers are encouraged to engage their community. They are encouraged to be active participants.
In addition to being instilled with a spirit of community, each successive LeaP class is also given the tools to be an active participant. They are educated on the various facets of local government. They meet the mayor, the sheriff and other elected officials. They learn the specific functions of each entity.
LeaP classes also visit local hospitals for a lesson in healthcare. They tour the Navy base and learn what role the military plays in the local landscape. When they travel to Tallahassee, participants enjoy a session of the Florida Legislature.
“The idea is to train these people where they’ll have some grasp of what’s going on,” Bowden said.
Each LeaP class lasts for 10 months. Each month, the class focuses on a different aspect of the community.
In turn, the LeaP class will dive into local government, education and healthcare. They will focus on ethics and quality of life issues, as well as regional economics.
“Understanding all these aspects,” Bowden said. “Understanding the arts …”
McFarren describes the experience as a course in leadership skills and personal development.
“They get the community exploration,” she said. “Our goal is that they feel value in all of it.”
Each year, the LeaP class also works together on a community project. While instilling teamwork, the project is designed to benefit the Pensacola area.
The project aspect of the class was started in the mid-1990s. Looking over the years, project titles provide a glimpse into the giveback: Operation Hope, Let’s Grow, Choose Opportunity, LeaP Into Books.
In 2008, the class project was Live Green Escambia, which focused on recycling. In its wake, the city of Pensacola began curbside recycling.
In 2001, the class sunk its teeth into Brownsville Middle School. They mentored students, in addition to repaving a parking lot and helping out with a career fair and the 8th grade prom.
Another year, LeaPers focused their energies on refurbishing the Ronald McDonald House. A few years before that, they helped out Habitat For Humanity.
Each year, LeaP accepts about 50 applicants into its ranks. Soon after it began, the slots became coveted.
“It became ‘we’ve got to get into LeaP,’” explained Jones, “as a business thing.”
When the nominating period begins each year, the program has many more applicants than it has available slots.
“It’s in high demand to be a part of it, it’s an honor to be selected,” said Appleyard. “It’s something to be proud of. I think businesses pay attention to that as something significant.”
Each year, candidates are nominated, or apply directly, for a chance to participate in the program. McFarren said the program looks for a diverse crop of participants for each new class.
“Usually, it’s a pretty diverse cross section of our community,” she said. “We have all different kinds of people.”
While many LeaP participants happen to be young adults, the program is open to anyone considered to be an emerging leader.
“This year we have everyone from the city manager to small business entrepreneurs,” McFarren said. “Every walk of life, every stage in their career.”
Looking Back, Looking Forward
The original LeaP steering committee never got a chance to enjoy the experience they engineered. Even then, available slots in the class were considered too precious.
“We all wanted to be LeaP alumni, but we didn’t want to take up a slot,” said Dye. “We all kind of agreed not to go through it because we wanted to make it available to other people.”
In 2008—the 25th anniversary—the steering committee, what Bowden refers to as “the pioneers,” were inducted into the organization as LeaP’s first honorary alumni. Also inducted as honorary alumni were Ginger Wetherell, Dr. Judy Bense, Buzz Ritchie, Joe Story, Susan Story and Quint Studer.
Reflecting on the three decades of LeaP, the original team enjoys some amount of gratification. The program has worked.
“It ended up way better than we might have anticipated,” said Appleyard. “It’s been terrific.”
Just as its architects intended, the LeaP program has been a catalyst for instilling a sense of community and injecting new blood into the local infrastructure.
“There are people ready, willing and able to take new positions, leadership positions, because of being in LeaP,” explained Appleyard. “It gives us a whole lot more and better people to help support the government and the community.”
Bowden calls LeaP an “excellent program” and “one of the finest things done around here.” He feels the class has produced competent community leaders.
“I think they understand the town better,” Bowden said.
Dr. Jones enjoys the long view. After 30 years, he can gaze across the timeline of Pensacola and appreciate the impact LeaP has had on the community.
“It’s a good legacy,” he said.
Across varied strata of Pensacola society, LeaP graduates will be found. They are in positions of power and influence and service. By design, they are successful and intent on creating a successful environment for their community.
“You start to look at the parts and the pieces and it comes together as a puzzle,” Jones said. “And you put it together and the outcome is LeaP.”