Leadership Austin Is In The Business Of Building Leaders

Darin Upchurch is one of 55 newly minted leadership Austin alums who are fired up about taking an active role in the community.

A year ago, Darin Upchurch knew about Leadership Austin–it would have been hard not to, since his partner is a board member. All the same, he was uncertain about applying for the Essential class, one of the six programs the organization runs. Upchurch is the assistant director of the Austin Convention Center and manages the Palmer Events Center, so to say he’s busy is an understatement. He wanted to be sure the significant time commitment would be worth it.

One year later, there’s no trace of hesitancy when he talks about the program. He completed the nine-month Essential class in May 2011.

“I looked at the tag lines: community trusteeship, inclusiveness, collaborative decision making, and I didn’t know if those were just buzz words, or if we’d delve into that,” Upchurch said. “I found it very beneficial to gather groups of people together with different leadership styles, work together and put aside any difference we might have politically, or even disagreements about the project itself before it began. It was fantastic! I am so glad I did it.”

Being part of the class of 55 professionals also provides great networking, Upchurch added, although as a business leader who has been working in Austin since 1994, he didn’t feel the need to network more. What he wanted, and what he got, was a different perspective on Austin’s community that inspired him to delve into the world of nonprofits.

“I walked in thinking I was at the end of my career, and I walked out invigorated,” he said.

Leadership Austin has its roots in the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which created it as a single program (now the Essential program) in 1979. Similar leadership development programs, with the goal of creating community leaders, exist in many cities. In Austin the Chamber started the program to help cultivate more civic responsibility in and among the city’s business leadership, said Heather McKissick, president and CEO of Leadership Austin.

It remained part of the Austin Chamber of Commerce until 2001, when it became a freestanding 501(c)3. That move allowed the organization to diversify, McKissick explained, and now it runs six programs for professionals from all walks of life, and in all stages of the leadership journey.

“It’s our mission to continually refresh the pipeline of passionate, community-minded leaders,” McKissick said. “We do everything we can to help them connect deeply to whatever their passion for the community is, and then turn that passion into action.”

Graduates of Leadership Austin programs often go on to volunteer, work with nonprofits as a staff or board member, or run for public office. Most of the current city council and Mayor Lee Leffingwell are Leadership Austin alumni.

While two of the organization’s programs, Essential and Emerge, are application based, Leadership Austin also offers plenty for the general public. Among those programs are Engage, a monthly series, and Experience Austin. All of them focus on leadership development through issues, skills and relationships, McKissick said.

Potential participants in Emerge and Essential apply in the summer, and each program begins in the fall with about 50 class members. During the course of the programs, participants learn about issues in Austin, from health care and housing to animal welfare and environmental concerns. They also work toward creating relationships that will allow for future collaboration.

“We want to make sure people connect with one another so they can effect change together,” McKissick said. “That’s the model, and it’s always changing, because the issues never stay the same. One of the things I’m most proud of, and one of our biggest challenges, is to always stay current.”

Inclusiveness is also a key part of Leadership Austin’s programs, and the organization takes seriously its role in building an Austin that brings everyone to the table to tackle the varied issues in the region. That may mean a class has participants with very different political or philosophical views working together on an issue.

For Upchurch, working with a group that didn’t always agree was a tremendous boon, both for his leadership goals and his professional life.

Upchurch recalls a series of events and festivals several years ago that all took place at the same time between the Long Center, the Palmer Events Center and Auditorium Shores.

“It was like someone unleashed a small country,” he said with a laugh. “I had to bring together arts groups, friends, stakeholders–if I had had this class before that, I think I would have understood all those viewpoints, and letting everyone collaborate.”

But beyond his professional world, Upchurch said he’s now a living example of the Leadership Austin tagline, “igniting passion.” He wants to join the board of a nonprofit, and he is researching possibilities. Getting involved in an organization that benefits people with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one path that he said interests him, in part because his father passed away from ALS about a year ago.

He also loves animals and said that during the Essential program, a visit to the spay-and-neuter advocacy organization Emancipet was an inspiring experience.

“What I took away is that you can’t sit by the sidelines and wait for other people to make change,” Upchurch said. “It’s helping out groups and not getting paid. It’s taking a role in change.”