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Young Leaders Society: The new generation

United Way group gets lessons on leadership from Deal, old guard

POSTED: September 25, 2011 1:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Lauren Samples, center, and husband Blake talk with Melissa Gramling Tuesday during a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion in Atlanta as part of the United Way Young Leaders Society. The organization gives young professionals the opportunity to connect with experienced business leaders in the community.

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In the fog of a Tuesday between seasons, there are all the makings of a fall semester field trip.

In a bus, nearly full, passengers are facing backward in their seats, eager to talk to those immediately behind them. Someone counts heads and makes an announcement. 

Some lean across the aisle to chat. 

The buzz is youthful, but this is no schoolyard babble. 

The bus isn’t yellow, it’s chartered, and its passengers are professionals, suited and mostly in their 30s.

The bus begins to make its way toward the governor’s mansion, and someone moves to a back seat to make a phone call. His voice authoritative, he mentions a client.

Even when you’re on your way to mingle with some of the state’s top leaders, business never ends. 

Such is the life of United Way of Hall County’s Young Leaders, an exclusive group of local up-and-comers who pair philanthropy with professional advancement.

Among them are mortgage lenders, construction and marketing executives, an assistant city manager and school administrators.

They come together on initiatives to provide school supplies to area children, to support local veterans and to simply raise money for United Way’s various goals each year.

But their reward is an exclusive look inside the success of local business and government leaders.

Philip Wilheit Jr., a founding member of the group, calls it “sexy” community involvement.

“We were just trying to get younger people involved in this by making it a little bit more sexy, than a lot of these, which are just plain work,” Wilheit said. “But this, we’re trying to make it a little bit more fun — a little bit more sexy — get them involved, get them giving and get them working behind the scenes where they kind of see what your effort goes into and see how rewarding it can be.”

Trips like the one the group took Tuesday to the governor’s mansion — complete with a casual lunch with the Hall County delegation of the General Assembly as well as Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — are meant to “inspire” the county’s imminent leaders, Wilheit said.

The group, ranging from 20-somethings to 40-year-olds, takes field trips to speak with established leaders in the county at least quarterly.

“We also get them in front of the leaders of (local) companies, and then talk to the leaders of these companies and (they) show them how everything works,” said Wilheit.

On this particular Tuesday, the group gets insight from Deal and Cagle, Hall County’s hometown heroes at the helm of Georgia’s political realm.

Cagle tells the group over lunch that leadership is about trustworthiness and integrity, “who you are when no one else is looking.”

Deal later says that good leadership depends upon one’s ability to listen.

Deal, too, was one of the group. But when the governor was in his mid-30s, United Way was called “Community Chest” and Deal was the chairman.

Even then, the governor said the group was central to success.

“That’s one of the better philanthropic agencies that we have in the community ... they’re an important part of our community,” Deal said in a later interview. “I think you have to have the willingness to serve. ... if you’re going to be in a leadership role, you ought to have, as we call it, a servant’s heart.”

He hoped the trip to the mansion would inspire the group to be leaders outside the political realm, too.

“I want them to understand that it’s important for them to be community leaders, people who do things not because they’re elected to do it by any political structure, but that they are just willing to step up and be leaders in the community,” Deal said. “That’s where the biggest demand for leadership is.”

Back on the bus to Hall County, Scott Justus, athletic director at West Hall High School, is one of those. His wife had always been involved in United Way, but the Young Leaders group was his door into the organization.

The point of Tuesday’s trip was not lost on Justus.

“To be able to know that (Deal) had the same roots ... as he was growing up in our age now ... he did the same things that we’re trying to do. ... He had a giving heart and you hope that you can follow into those footsteps a little bit,” said Justus.

“It’s a small-town guy who makes good, all because of what he believed in and the things he did with his life.”

What Young Leaders about to Justus is growing — not only people but ideas.

“You didn’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of that was your age,” said Justus. “Things were done this way, but what if you had ... new ideas?”

Before he joined Young Leaders, Justus said there was no real place for those in between young adulthood and established leadership to come together.

As much as Young Leaders is involved in United Way’s philanthropic campaigns, it is also about networking and weaving the patchwork of future leaders, Justus said.

Davis White, a 38-year-old internet marketing executive, was a founding member along with Wilheit Jr.

“Gainesville has been a community that has changed so much in our lifetimes, and there has been just such an influx of smart, talented young professionals, so this has been an opportunity for us to interface with many of those people and to really know who’s shaping our community,” said White.

Young Leaders was a chance for White and his wife to work together on charitable causes. But he said the interaction with established and influential members of the community is a learning opportunity that also strengthens their connection with their community.

Many of the group’s members are local residents, but Julie Nicholson, a mortgage lender at Community Bank and Trust, said she’s never felt more at home.

“I feel like a lot of times if you’re not involved, then you don’t get that full sense of where you live,” said Nicholson.

 



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