“It was the greatest year ever…You’ll meet friends for life…The experience is amazing!” Ask any Leadership Tallahassee alumnus about their experience and you will surely hear this response-eerily reminiscent of the Manchurian Candidate. As a two-time applicant, I had heard this exact description more times than I could count over the past few years. So much so that I couldn’t help but secretly wonder if Leadership Tallahassee was more of a cult than a civic program for community leaders.
When my acceptance letter arrived in May of 2013, I could not wait to see the list of people that would comprise Class 31-my new “friends for life.” Poring over the list, I was surprised how few people I had crossed paths with before. What could we possibly have in common? I was nervous before Orientation : I remember thinking through what I would possibly speak about with 39 strangers and realizing that college may have been the last time I was even expected to get to know that many new people at one time.
Icebreakers revealed how professionally diverse this group was-non-profit executives, bankers, attorneys, education leaders, construction managers, community volunteers, lobbyists, even a deputy fire chief. Small talk revealed how diverse our personal lives were-single parents, new parents and soon-to-be parents, single folks, soon-to-be married folks, native Tallahasseeans, transplants, Floridians, and non-Floridians. At the reception, LT alumni from every class congratulated me at every turn. Although I was beaming with pride, seeds of doubt remained. Sure the schedule of program days seemed interesting, and had the makings of a great year. But “friends for life?” After 39 years on this planet, I had a pretty narrow definition of “friends for life.” I was excited, but still a bit skeptical.
As the opening retreat grew nearer, my curiosity about the program intensified. What did the weekend hold in store? Please don’t let it be trust falls and games of “I never” designed to encourage team building. I distracted myself with the assignment of introducing a classmate. “Be funny,” Barbara had said. By the way, the best advice ever received from an alumnus: give them something they can wear. Rather than call around creepily to people that knew my classmate, I opted for cyber-stalking, a little imagination, and a lot of poetic license.
Next up, I read the workbook distributed at orientation. By the time I hit page 3, I knew trust falls were out of the question. The upcoming weekend was going significantly more substantive. Excitement fully supplanted nervousness and doubt. I was all in.
All I can say about the opening retreat is that I boarded a bus with 40 strangers-names learned at Orientation having long been forgotten-and 12 hours later, we were interacting like old friends. Intense shared experiences like SimSoc and the privilege walk have a tendency to do that to a group. By Saturday, handshakes and awkward hellos were replaced by hugs goodbye and a true desire to see each other again. By Sunday, I missed those “strangers” and could not wait until our first program day. One “amazing experience” was had, the “greatest year ever” had begun…and so had the process of creating “friends for life.”
As emerging leaders looking to improve our community, the education we received during our program days was invaluable. It was during these program days that I truly enjoyed the professional and personal diversity of our class. Hearing classmates speak up and share their unique perspective during daily debriefs, ask pointed questions I had never conceived, interpret information in different manners, and relate elements back to the opening retreat is what truly bonded us together. Happy hours allowed for continued discussion of the day’s events and further strengthened our personal connections. Unrelated get-togethers began to pop up-Seminole
watch parties, tailgates, random happy hours, a holiday party, rock climbing, and more random happy hours.
In the blink of an eye, our closing retreat was upon us and 40 strangers-no-more settled down for the final 24 hours of the greatest year ever. What surprised me most was how well we knew each other. During our team activities, we knew how classmates would respond to questions. We knew who would raise their hand and what they would say. We knew we had just finished something big. Looking around the room, I could not imagine how I ever would have met these people. Sure, maybe I would have met a few during my life. But I never would have known them as well as I do today…and never all 40. How these relationships will impact our professional and personal growth in the coming years is impossible to tell, but I know in my heart that great things are in store. As for Leadership Tallahassee? It was the greatest year ever. I had made friends for life. It was a truly amazing experience.
—Dan McGrew (LT 31)