By Diana B. Ratliff
President Leadership Kentucky
In public affairs, Kentucky gave the nation Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, in letters, Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Berry, and in science, Nobel Prize laureates Thomas Hunt Morgan (1933) and Phillip Sharp (1993).
We are a state where leaders and leadership are nurtured and where, despite stereotypes, intellect is valued. In our finest moments, that value is reflected in public policy, as it was in 1990 when the Kentucky Education Reform Act defined our state as the nexus for advancing the best ideas about how to improve public schools.
We also are state where risks are taken. Were it not so, Daniel Boone would have returned to the comparative comfort of North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, not led families into the dangerous, unsettled wilderness that was, in its day, the infant United States’ best hope for meeting aspirations of becoming a leading power among the world’s nations.
Leadership Kentucky formed in 1984 with all of that history in mind, and with the idea that new generations of leaders and risk-takers could and would be encouraged to urge progress in their home towns, their regions and statewide.
It’s something of a back-to-school experience for leaders from business, health-care, public affairs, education, and the social services, who come together for the first time each year in mid-May for a three-day retreat that is repeated each month through November. Many are new to the state, transferred here for a job, while others are lifelong Kentuckians, perhaps newly promoted to positions of influence in their companies and institutions. Their common interest is to learn more about the state’s history, the issues confronting it today and the efforts in place to meet challenges to Kentucky’s well-being.
How has it worked out? In those 28 years: 1,435 have graduated, with about 50 more class members added each year.
Leadership Kentucky is a great success story statistically, but the words of its recent graduates add narrative to the numbers. Here’s a sample of the replies to a question about Leadership Kentucky’s value:
• “Who knows how long – if ever – it would have taken me to see the greatness that surely lies in Kentucky’s future.”
• “I would not know the beauty, cultural complexity and diversity of the entire state.”
• “I would have remained complacent and cynical about engaging in the battle to change Kentucky.”
• “I would not have been able to participate in one of the most beneficial educational experiences in my life. I only wish every citizen of the commonwealth could have this experience. Leadership Kentucky is life changing.”
Life changing. That’s pretty strong but it is unexaggerated testimony. Year after year, graduates report the same sense of graduating from Leadership Kentucky with a deeper understanding of what needs to be done in Kentucky, a deeper commitment to being part of doing it and, not least of all, a new network for allies – their classmates – to bring change about. Leadership Kentucky graduates have been inspired to seek public office. They’ve banded together in philanthropic efforts. They’ve assembled “think and act” summits on issues such as early childhood education. Less tangibly but no less important, they’ve returned home to their jobs and daily lives with their complacency erased.
Leadership Kentucky cannot boast of the next Lincoln. Not yet. But leadership in a state never rests solely on the hope of a single, once-in-a-millennium-or-more leader of the 16th president’s caliber. Rather, leadership in Kentucky rests on the steady construction of a cadre of community leaders who are well-informed and ready to answer a summons to dig in and solve a problem.
And there are problems. In his seminal study of school reform published last year by the University Press of Kentucky, “A History of Education in Kentucky,” Richmond’s William E. Ellis reminded us that Kentucky quickly became a leader among the new nation’s states but ceded some ground as the 20th Century began: “The Commonwealth of Kentucky, based on its population, its economy, and its location, declined from being one of the major states in the Union to being one of the poorest, bypassed by many of the important chances of the latter 19th Century.”
Now, as we moved deeper into the 21st Century, Kentucky will need new generations of leaders to prod and push progress – and Leadership Kentucky is committed to playing a leading role is nurturing those leaders, just as Boone’s Kentucky nurtured Clay, and as Clay’s Kentucky nurtured Lincoln, and Lincoln’s Kentucky nurtured the nation’s moral awakening toward a new birth of freedom that brought us, in time, to a nation richer in opportunity for citizens. Today’s challenges, though different, are as daunting, and Leadership Kentucky exists to prepare Kentuckians to meet them.