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How Leadership Delaware is Training New Generations of Trailblazers

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In his immaculate white Navy dress uniform, Charles “Chuck” Baldwin cuts an impressive figure as he stands at the center of a U-shaped formation of tables. In a meeting room at the New Castle headquarters of Easter Seals on a Friday afternoon, Baldwin, retired command master chief and co-founder of the Delaware Military Academy, is explaining his philosophy of leadership and education to the 14 men and 13 women seated at the tables.

He is the final speaker on a day that began at 7:30 a.m. for his audience, the current class of fellows in the nine-year history of Leadership Delaware Inc. Despite their long day, preceded by an equally long Thursday, the 27, all in business attire, are alert, attentive, taking notes and ready with incisive questions when Baldwin concludes his 50-minute talk.

Earlier, they had heard from Pete Schwartzkopf, speaker of the Delaware House of Representatives. Schwartzkopf’s speech, with the cumbersome yet intriguing title “Political/Caucus and House Leadership: Herding Cats by Inspiration, Perspiration & Agitation,” prompts some discussion during a coffee break.

The previous day’s speakers included Carla Markell, immediate past first lady of Delaware; Michael Jackson, director of the state Office of Management and Budget; and Robert Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable.

Seated to the side at each of the sessions is Terry Strine, the paterfamilias of LDI. It’s through the influence of the trim, white-haired, indefatigable Strine that this impressive group of presenters—135 addressed last year’s class—has been recruited.

Strine, who with his wife, Sandy, owns a successful commercial real estate business in Wilmington, served as chairman of the Delaware State Republican Party from 2003 until 2008, when he ran unsuccessfully for national committeeman. The defeat freed him from his political endeavors, giving him time to examine the country that he loves, along with its leaders. He found the country to be foundering, the leaders derelict. Deciding that America needed fresh, committed and informed leadership, he put together a seven-page document outlining a yearlong program of issue-oriented forums aimed at informing and training young Delawareans to be leaders in three areas: their professions, politics and the nonprofit sector.

He took the proposal to his friend, Pete du Pont, and the venerable former Republican governor gave it his imprimatur. That was all Strine needed. He recruited a board of directors, applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, then sought nominations for participants in the program from business, political and industry leaders throughout the state. Leadership Delaware Inc. was born.

Each 10-month program begins in February. A typical month includes three sessions, the first running from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the second a Thursday evening session, typically hosted by a Leadership Delaware supporter and featuring a keynote speaker, followed by an all-day session on Friday. They are held in board rooms, public buildings and private homes, including the barn on the spacious grounds of the Strines’ Centreville home.

Each class is stocked with 18 to 30 of what Strine calls “Delaware’s best and brightest young leaders,” generally ranging in age from 28 to 38. “That’s the sweet spot we’re looking for,” he says. “We want them to have been in the real world making a living for a while, and have two generations of leadership ahead for them.”

The selection process is arduous, and it tends to purge pretenders. Take the experience of Matthew Windsor, a member of the current class.

The student ministries director at Eagle’s Nest Church in Milton, Windsor admits to some initial skepticism about LDI. Prior to the qualifying interview, Strine told him, “You’ve been preparing for this your entire life.”

“I thought, this guy is just blowing smoke,” Windsor says. “Then, with the first interview question, I realized I have been preparing for this my entire life. Terry and the program want to know what’s inside your bones, who you are and your character, not what you think about a certain topic.”

Following the interview, Windsor was far from confident that he would be selected. By contrast, some other candidates assured him that they were “shoo-ins.”

“None of those people were chosen,” Windsor says, “and that spoke volumes to me.”

Seven years ago, the class included only one African-American, a woman. By contrast, this year’s group is a diverse bunch, with one Asian, three Latinos and seven people of color.

Among the latter is Tariq Hook, director of technology and education for Zip Code Wilmington coding school. “Terry lets you know exactly what is expected of you, and nobody wants to disappoint him,” Hook says. “It would actually hurt me to disappoint him.”

By the end of the first month, Hook was, well, hooked, and he quickly adopted a fundamental aspect of the program. “Based on the application for LDI, we are changing our employment application at Zip Code Wilmington,” he says.

Like Windsor, Bonita Penn found the initial interview something of a life-changing event. A registered nurse with Christiana Care Health System, Penn is one of four African-American women in the current class.

“The interview is very intense,” she says. “I found out a few things about myself and what I stood for. I already knew that, but it causes you to take a deeper look into yourself and how you want your life to be and how you will be giving back.”

She exudes the kind of true believer fervor typical of fellows past and present. “It’s going to be an exciting year,” she says, “and I think it’s going to transform me into a different realm as a leader and in my professional career.”

Strine emphasizes that LDI’s goals extend beyond the fellows’ professional careers. “We expect each of them to be leaders not only in their business or profession but also in government and politics—even if it’s as an adviser—and in the nonprofit sector.”

It’s not hyperbole when he claims that graduates are more knowledgeable about all levels of government and issues, such as healthcare, education and technology, than those on governing bodies throughout Delaware—including the one in Dover. That concept is captured in a catchy aphorism on the website: “Leadership Delaware helps fellows ‘collect the dots so they can connect the dots.’” Another states, “Those who know better do better.”

Stoked on this treasure trove of knowledge, several graduates have moved into political and government positions. Last year, Republican Anthony Delcollo, a 2015 fellow, won the Senate District 7 race, unseating 28-year incumbent and President Pro Tem Patty Blevins. Another fellow, Ken Simpler, became Delaware state treasurer in 2014.

Some play behind-the-scenes roles. LaTisha Bracy was the campaign director for Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat who succeeded current Gov. John Carney in the U.S. House of Representatives this year. Fellow Chris Perdue, scion of the poultry producer, served on Carney’s transition team.

Fellows active in the nonprofit sector include Kelly Wetzel, board member of Wilmington Renaissance Corp., the Bill Frank Scholarship Foundation and the annual Gridiron Dinner; Samantha Diedrick, president of the Rotary Club of Wilmington and John Pierson, founding board member of Friere Charter School in Wilmington.

The intense program creates strong bonds, according to Perdue, a 2016 graduate. “Spending a year together exposes you to a lot of experiences and makes you more humble, and you realize that your worst day could be someone else’s best day,” he says. “It also makes you see how you may have misjudged a person when you first met them.”

The bonding can become emotional. “Everyone opened up, crying and hugging, like brothers and sisters,” Perdue says. “Now we’re all incredibly good friends. At least every other month we get together, not just on the personal but on the professional level.”

Perdue has taken other leadership classes and self-improvement programs, but, he says, LDI is on a higher plane. “[The other programs] are amazing when you go through them, but when you’re done, not so much. But LDI is so intense, you’re forced to live and breathe and walk it. And it has impressed me how much of what we learned has stuck with us.”

Behind it all, of course, is the omnipresent Strine, who receives no salary. In attendance at virtually every session (he estimates that he’s missed six hours in eight years), he is a low-key taskmaster, but a taskmaster nevertheless. After Chuck Baldwin spoke, for instance, Strine referred to his notes, then delivered a quick critique of the group, gently admonishing those whose questions were long-winded while encouraging those who did not take part to step up. He also recommended three media sources: The Wilmington News Journal, the Wall Street Journal and realclearpolitics.com. (The latter two lean a bit right, perhaps reflecting Strine’s Republican allegiance.)

More companies and organization are taking notice of LDI, and many have several graduates on their payrolls. Corporation Service Co. in Wilmington, for instance, has sent seven employees. Tuition is $4,500. “Eighty-five percent of our fellows have their tuition paid by their employers,” Strine says, “and the others from sponsors, those who believe in them, installment payments over the length of the program, etc.”

A self-made man who grew up on a small farm in York County, Pa., peddling chickens and eggs door-to-door with his widowed grandmother, the grandfather of five has no plans to retire soon. When he does, he says, “I believe it will be a board member who’ll succeed me, not someone we have to hire from a nonprofit or elsewhere.”

In the meantime, he’s obviously having fun, preparing for next year’s session—the 10th—honing it with input from the previous class. “I’ve got a full page of suggestions,” he says. “They set a high bar.”

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