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Columbia Business Monthly

Reflections as the Greenville Chamber’s Leadership Development Program Marks 50 Years

Feb 01, 2024 10:18AM ● By Merl Code

Following a January 1974 press release from the Greenville Chamber announcing Leadership Greenville amid the city’s continued growth, the inaugural program welcomed its first class that August with a vision to grow and retain informed, qualified leaders for the future. Now known as the Chamber’s flagship leadership development program, Leadership Greenville is celebrating five decades of achievements with its 50th class set to graduate this May. 

Today, Leadership Greenville continues as a 10-month experience that includes robust programming about the Greenville community, guest speakers, visits to various locations, facilitated leadership development sessions, and focused volunteer projects. By taking an intensive look into the issues affecting Greenville County, participants become more informed, committed, and equipped to serve as leaders within the area.

Other cities and communities around the state have similar leadership programs, including Columbia, Charleston, and the Grand Strand.

Over the years, Leadership Greenville has seen more than 2,400 graduates who together have led nearly 80 notable community service projects. Projects have ranged from helping draft initial concept ideas for the Reedy River Corridor, which later became Falls Park, to obtaining rights of way for an extension of the Swamp Rabbit Trail to partnering with Homes of Hope and Upstate Warrior Solution to provide affordable housing for veterans. The impact of these projects and many others continues to be evident across our community.

I had the privilege of being a part of Leadership Greenville’s 24th class from 1997 to 1998. At the time, the population of Greenville County was just under 350,000, the Hyatt arguably served as the anchor of Main Street, and the then BI-LO Center was set to open its doors. Much has changed more than 25 years later, yet the influence of Leadership Greenville remains strong across our community as well as among its many graduates. For me, the program was not only an intensive look at our city but the bearer of many enduring lessons in leadership.

Finding common ground

Being in a room with 50 ambitious leaders is a humbling experience. On paper, the members of my class worked in varying industries, held different job titles, and were engaged in diverse community initiatives. We had various perspectives and priorities in life and business. I quickly learned, though, that we had more in common than we each could imagine. This may sound cliché, but it remains true.

We all wanted to make a difference and develop not only our careers, but Greenville itself. Remembering that we quickly “found common ground” has served me throughout my career. As we work and live in a time when we're quick to point out differences and sometimes quick to force divides, I think we can all benefit from seeking to find common ground first and foremost – whether in our daily work or within our communities. 

Knowing when to lead and when to follow

Another prevailing lesson was simply knowing when to step back and let others lead. We all have unique gifts and should seize opportunities to use them for good. We should also make space for others to use their own personal gifts. I heard many diverse perspectives during my Leadership Greenville experience, and what a privilege that was! I learned to really consider them before jumping in to share my own point of view. 

The program also served as a reminder that you don’t always have to agree, and you certainly don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room in order to lead. I believe that true leaders know when to lead and when to follow, and with authentic trust and respect, they can come together to make a difference. 

Prioritizing community

The program also taught me that you don’t have to go far from home to make a difference. As citizens and business leaders, it should be our priority to remain committed to our communities and neighborhoods. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you open your eyes to what’s right around you, and this can also be a catalyst for good.

As Greenville looks to embark on its next 50 years amid continued economic growth, the issues we face will grow in scale and complexity. Yet Leadership Greenville will remain a powerful program that helps leaders become better citizens, employees, and stewards of the community.

I would challenge the next generation of leaders to get back to the basics as it relates to doing good and helping Greenville grow – work alongside those who are different from you, listen when you need to, and focus on what’s close by before looking too far. 

And finally, congratulations to the Greenville Chamber and the many Leadership Greenville graduates over the years. For future graduates, I hope the lessons you take away from the program are as formative for you as they were for me. 

Now retired, the Honorable Merl F. Code served as a Municipal Court Judge, attorney, and business owner while serving on the boards of more than 30 organizations in the Upstate. Today, he is active with community organizations including the Greenville Chamber as well as Greenville’s Racial Equity and Economic Mobility (REEM) Commission.