The American Leadership Forum (ALF) is a national non-profit organization, with nine autonomous chapters nationwide, whose mission is to join and strengthen diverse leaders to better serve the public good. The Tacoma/Pierce County chapter does this through its annual year-long Fellows leadership program and through Senior Fellows (graduates) activities to keep the network of leaders connected.
The American Leadership Forum was founded in 1981 by attorney Joseph Jaworski who left his successful law practice to address what he increasingly saw as a crisis of leadership taking place throughout the country. Jaworski's vision was to establish a national organization dedicated to bringing together diverse leaders from various sectors in communities across the country to develop their leadership skills and capacity and to strengthen their commitment to work together on community issues. Jaworski and seventeen other prominent Americans founded the American Leadership Forum with this vision in mind. They were convinced that if a diverse, cross-section of a community's business, elected, academic, and religious leadership could be brought together to work on public issues, no problem would be beyond solution.
This group included John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare; James MacGregor Burns, Professor Emeritus of Williams College, noted political scientist and author; Warren Bennis, former Professor at USC, and respected organizational consultant and author; Tom Bradley, former mayor of Los Angeles; Harlan Cleveland, President (Retired), The University of Hawaii, former ambassador to NATO, and President, the World Academy of Art & Science; Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School and cofounder of the consulting firm, Goodmeasure, Inc., and James B. Stockdale, Vice Admiral, USN (Retired), Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, and Senior Research Fellow, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.
Local leaders in Pierce County also recognized that organizational and community vitality requires a steady stream of empowered, motivated and connected leaders. Although other leadership programs exist locally and regionally, these programs are focused on training leaders in business or other areas, and do not focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and cross-sector leadership development. The ALF program fills that critical need, bringing diverse, influential leaders to the table to learn, reflect and practice leadership for the common good. Using an outcomes-based evaluation process, recent ALF classes have demonstrated statistically significant increases in participants' leadership capacity and community commitment.
ALF's purpose is to enhance individual collaborative leadership skills, increase awareness and understanding of diversity, disparity, equity and inclusion, to increase each participant's lifetime commitment to community leadership and service, and to create a growing and diverse network of leaders with the skills, trust and relationships to work collaboratively for the public good.
The ALF Fellows Program provides a year-long training program for 20-24 diverse, influential leader from 15 different sectors in the community. Participants reflect a cross-section of the community's cultural, ethnic, sex, age, racial, LGBTQA, gender identity, political, religious, sector and geographic diversity. To date, twenty three classes of 20-24 diverse leaders have completed the program and there are 503 Senior Fellows (graduates) in Pierce County. Class XXIV is in progress and Class XXV has been selected and will begin in June. The one-year leadership program is administered by the Executive Director under the direction of the ALF Board and its committees.
While the year-long leadership experience can be life-changing for the participants, the true value of the program is the building of a critical mass of leaders who have learned the dynamics of collaborative and servant leadership and who are committed to serving the Pierce County community. ALF graduates hold critical roles in many of the civic projects and organizations that have shaped Tacoma/Pierce County's economic and social development.
ALF recognizes that leadership development is not so much about teaching leadership as it is about creating an environment for individual learning and insight. ALF convenes a diverse group, provides the container in which they come together, and sets up some experiences and parameters that help to build trust and a willingness of participants to move out of their comfort zones. While the curriculum does include some textbook learning, it is also about facilitating learning from and among participants. Much of the learning that participants gain indeed comes largely from others in the program via experiential learning.
The curriculum is based on providing participants opportunities to learn, practice and reflect on the topics of collaboration, dialogue skill, ethics, equity and inclusion, and other leadership topics. Through the Fellows Program, participants broaden their perspectives about key issues and consider how leadership for the common good can affect the community and its future. The core program begins with an orientation to acquaint participants with program expectations and outcomes. Early sessions include group behavioral tendencies assessments, understanding and appreciating differences, the creative use of dialogue, and how these topics influence leadership and decision making. These initial sessions are followed by a 6 day residential Community Building Lab in Plain, WA designed to build powerful skills in partnering across difference, self-reliance, trust and teamwork.
The Community Building Lab transforms participants' perceptions of personal abilities and strengths and adds new dimensions to their visions of what, together, they can do. Participants deeply explore the intersections of difference and eight critical leadership skills to better partner across these differences. This is the centerpiece of the ALF program, combining the tools of leadership theory with hands-on experiences in collaborative leadership and problem solving. The week allows space for challenging and meaningful explorations of differences, practicing and embodying eight critical leadership skills needed for effective partnerships across difference, identifying new options for interrupting systemic advantage, and creating ways of building community on a broader level. Participants develop the courage to stay in dialogue while navigating systemic racism, heterosexism, and classism and how these operate as systemic advantage in their workplaces, community and personal lives. One Class XXIII Fellow said, “I found the things in myself that contribute to systemic oppression, and learned tools to address this behavior in myself and maybe others.” The group taps into the differences among class members, learns how to leverage them, and how to apply that skill to work, community, and family. Participants are encouraged to be challenged and challenging. Strong relationships based on trust and celebrations of difference are built during this week.
Upon returning from the lab, class members continue to take part in a series of monthly seminars that examine and analyze the complex challenges facing today's leaders. Classes also participate in a two day mid-year Taking Stock Retreat. Session topics include collaborative leadership, understanding diversity, systems thinking, and ethical dimensions of leadership. Sessions are led by prominent consultants and facilitators who specialize in the many facets of building community. Much of the learning comes from the interaction among class members.
The ALF program also includes a leadership (ALI) in action project in which the class defines a community need and an effective way to resolve it. Designing the ALI creates a learning laboratory for collaborative leadership using the skills and bonds developed by participants over the year.