TOPEKA — Each year, lawmakers, educators, farmers and entrepreneurs gather in cities from Lawrence to Garden City forming a “who’s who” of Kansans.
They are the up and coming leaders in the state — chosen for their diverse backgrounds — who already have established themselves as leaders in their communities or field of business. Leadership Kansas, a Kansas Chamber of Commerce program in its 38th year, hopes to expose the 40 chosen to topics that range from economic development and tax policy to agriculture and urban development, executive director John Federico said.
A short list of the 1,400 alumni of the program includes some of the state’s powerful of past and present: Former Gov. Bill Graves, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, former Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems executive Jeff Turner, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, U.S Rep. Lynn Jenkins and Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor.
“They’re the who’s who not because of their title. These are the doers,” Federico said. “This isn’t a leadership development class. Our mission is to identify leaders and inform them about the key issues important to Kansas.”
Leadership Kansas has become one of the state’s most prestigious networking events, and this year’s class started Friday.
Participating in the class builds a network alumni can fall back on for guidance or to fill a position or board seat, Federico said.
Topeka City Manager Jim Colson called it the “best experience of my professional career,” touting the mixture of critical state issues. The 2013 class also is how he met deputy city manager Doug Gerber and Topeka police Chief James Brown. He hired both of them in 2014, but said the class didn’t directly influence his decision.
“It was a stamp of approval on their professionalism and skillset that was consistently demonstrated through the selection process,” Colson said in a written statement.
Gerber, who was city manager in Goodland when he participated in Leadership Kansas, said the class taught him how to make connections between issues and look at situations with a broader view. He said he was exposed to urban issues he was unfamiliar with while others in the class got a feel for rural problems, such as water use.
“In Kansas, we’re an urban, rural state. There’s a cultural divide between the two,” he said. “Those different viewpoints help me think through issues we deal with on a daily basis.”
To keep Leadership Kansas diverse, Federico says the board limits the number of businessmen and politicians in each class to ensure small business owners, farmers, ranchers and teachers from all parts of the state also can participate.
Some of the topics covered, such as health care, immigration and tax policy, can carry political undertones, but Federico said the program stays apolitical by featuring multiple speakers with varying viewpoints on such topics.
“We pride ourselves on the selection,” he said. “There’s no propaganda. There’s no pro-business slant.”
Former Auburn-Washburn Superintendent Brenda Dietrich said diversity helped her better understand the state she grew up in when she took the class in 2005.
Dietrich was born in Colby and grew up in McPherson before spending the last several years in northeast Kansas. Even though she has lived in cities across the state, she said she didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the various issues until she participated in Leadership Kansas.
“It was eye-opening,” she said.
Dietrich stayed active in the program and sat on its board from 2007 through 2012.
Each year, nearly 700 people are nominated for the program. A few hundred might apply, and the program’s board of trustees narrows that to the 40 selected.
Federico said Leadership Kansas hopes each returns to their community and makes a difference.
“All we ask is they keep an open mind and go back and engage,” he said.