Leadership lab connects civic innovators from across sectors in Akron, Ohio

Communities / Article

Mark Scheffler is president of Leadership Akron, which Knight Foundation supports as part of its efforts to help attract and retain talented people, expand economic opportunity and creative a culture of civic engagement in Akron, Ohio, one of 26 Knight communities

Powerful things can happen when community leaders come together. Across all the theories of change for transforming organizations and communities – from Appreciative Inquiry to Collective Impact and many more – you will find boundary-crossing leadership as a core component. Across the country, Leadership Akron and our counterparts in the Association of Leadership Programs foster this leadership, bringing leaders together from every walk of life, every corner of the community. Groups such as ours build the fabric of our communities by helping us see beyond our own spheres to the bigger picture, and by creating networks of leaders across constituencies. 

In addition to connecting leaders and helping to shape their perspective, some leadership groups have begun leveraging leadership talent to address crucial community needs. Leadership Greater Hartford in Connecticut has consulted with city government to facilitate dialogue and inform decision-making on tough budget trade-offs. Leadership Louisville Center’s Bingham Fellows program assembles leaders across sectors and generations for a course in community problem-solving that addresses a vital issue for their community.  And with support from Knight Foundation, Leadership Akron will design the Civic Solutions Lab, a new opportunity to address community-wide challenges. 

The lab will convene a cross-section of leaders to address issues that cut across organizational boundaries. They will come together in similar fashion to other leadership programs to explore and learn together. In the lab, though, the focus shifts from discovering the community to building solutions for a problem that is vital to the Akron area’s well-being.

We have yet to determine a topic for the lab’s first group of participants; we have convened a design team to begin developing the program and selecting a topic. The Bingham Fellows program, which the design team is benchmarking, has focused on topics ranging from smart food culture to revitalizing distressed neighborhoods. For each of these issues, the Bingham Fellows program includes interested people who are not directly tied to the issue. This brings together leaders with context and leaders with fresh sets of eyes so that new solutions can emerge. 

Whatever topic the design team selects, the lab will provide a learning experience in leading change with the authenticity of real challenges in real communities. It also provides an opportunity for people to practice collaborative leadership skills in a supportive environment. As a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review piece highlighted, these groups offer a supportive environment for people to practice collaborative leadership. The lab will provide leaders the opportunity to sharpen their skills in the civic realm, which can feel foreign to people who are more accustomed to structured organizations. 

In this way, the impact of the lab will extend beyond the topic of any given cohort. It will also build the community’s problem-solving muscle, creating a leadership corps more confident and more equipped to address a variety of challenges and opportunities. Together, they will show the powerful ideas that can emerge with a cross-section of leaders who are driven to build the well-being of Akron.