Harr: The Chattanooga way: Leadership Tennessee embodies city's can-do spirit

photo Ross's landing and the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.
photo Ron Harr

People from all over the globe come to Chattanooga to study our transformation from a city on the decline to the thriving tourist and manufacturing hotspot we are today.

So what's our secret? I believe it's in the way we collaborate - Chattanooga is different because we learned how to pull together to get big things done. We even refer to it as "The Chattanooga Way."

Gov. Bill Haslam recently cited this very model of problem-solving in his State of the State address, calling Tennessee's history of collaborative leadership a distinguishing quality that has allowed our state to leverage the strengths of every sector - public, private and nonprofit - for the common good.

We know it works, and that's why the Chattanooga Chamber spends 10 months out of every year training a diverse cross-section of 40 emerging leaders in collaborative problem-solving. As a result, our Leadership Chattanooga program has become a local hallmark of civic engagement, just as similar programs are in cities like Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis.

Legendary Nashville businessman Nelson Andrews started the first community-based leadership program, (Leadership Nashville) in 1976. I knew him well, so I am very proud that Lipscomb University's Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership is expanding the concept behind this leadership model with the launch of Leadership Tennessee. This 10-month program is designed to provide collaborative learning and dialogue that spans the state's three grand divisions and offers issue-specific education to a diverse representation of parties. Participants will include demonstrated leaders in the business, nonprofit, education and government sectors.

As my career took me around this great state, I had the opportunity to graduate from both Leadership Chattanooga and Leadership Knoxville. Having worked in Tennessee's four major metro areas in various capacities over the last 35 years, I got to see first-hand just how the issues vary from city to city. I think the formation of a statewide leadership program is a great idea.

Chattanooga is not Knoxville, and Nashville is not Memphis. That's a good thing, because it means we bring different sets of expertise and challenges to the table. Our diversity is a toolkit we can use to solve problems.

As Leadership Tennessee participants come together to experience the unique cultures found throughout our state, our communities will benefit from leaders who share a deeper understanding of the context surrounding the issues and challenges that bind us together. This creates a wealth of opportunities to strengthen civic life and productivity at every level of the state.

For more information on Leadership Tennessee you can visit its website: www.leadershiptennessee.org. Participants will be announced in May and will begin classes in September. The cohort will meet five times throughout the program and will also participate in additional research and projects outside of class.

We're fortunate to live in a state that makes creating infrastructure for civic collaboration a priority. In Chattanooga, it's part of our culture. In Tennessee, it's the way our communities are moving each other forward.

Ron Harr is president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.