NIAGARA FALLS – It has been four years since Molly Anderson took over directing the Leadership Niagara program with its graduate school-level teamwork training, community outreach and networking.
In that time, she has adapted its leadership principles to a mission visit in Haiti, to enlist extra support during her husband’s deployment and to inspire her 18-year-old aspiring filmmaker son, Michael.
“You need to reach out to other people who are experts,” said Anderson, 42, executive director of Leadership Niagara, which offers a year of classes and seminars for adults and high school students who apply. “Leaders know it’s their job to help create other leaders.”
Since its inception, with its first class of about 25 executives and managers in 1984, Leadership Niagara has diversified to include professionals of all kinds – from police officers, bank managers, small-business owners to public high school math teachers. Twelve years ago, students nominated by local high schools began to work their way through a similar but shorter nine-month series of lessons in values, project management, government and ethics.
“We have a thing in Leadership Niagara: You don’t graduate out of the program, you graduate into the program. You stay involved and you lead. We like to think we’re developing an army of change agents,” Anderson said.
Anderson, 42, is a former program director of Junior Achievement, the mother of four children and a stepdaughter, and the wife of Navy reservist Richard “Jay” Anderson, an Amherst Town board member.
When he deployed to the Middle East for 10 months starting in the fall of 2011, she took a leadership cue to get through his absence: She talked over the struggles of solo parenting by finding mentors among other Leadership alumni who’d gone through similar experiences.
“There’s so many,” she said. “The largest employer in Niagara County is the air base.”
One of her favorite stops is Niagara Falls’ new Culinary Institute with its two restaurants and bakery serving as a training center for Niagara County Community College. She was impressed by the personal service, food and its potential to attract and inspire more businesses and innovations.
“I walked in there for the first time, and the maitre d’ knew my name. He had met me some months before, in passing, at another restaurant,” said Anderson, remembering the tasty tomato cabbage soup and the artful circular arrangement of the cobb salad. “Not what you’d expect from a student-run program.”
As classmates get to know each other during these outings, collaborations develop. One of her favorites: In 2008, Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour and Niagara University Director of Continuing Education JonJay Stockslader talked with each other about how rookie police officers had to go to training school only after they were hired because there was not a local school with the right curricula. NU has since opened a police academy that trains people before they’re hired.
“It shows the importance of community and relationships,” she said. “Being able to connect with people in your network so you don’t have to do it alone. To make things happen. To create a vision.”
Is living in Erie County a handicap for leading an organization focused in Niagara County?
Absolutely not. I’m a lifelong resident of Western New York. It’s one region, and I think what we’re doing is much bigger than one town or one county. I think it’s a great example that leadership doesn’t stop at any territorial boundary.
You went to Haiti for four days in August? Why?
I was wanting to develop a partnership in Haiti. It was at the tail end of tropical storm Isaac. People might wonder, as a mother of four, why I went to Haiti when the vaccinations cost as much as a ticket to go there.
So it’s obviously a very dangerous place to travel to. I also felt that was an example to my children of self-sacrifice and facing challenges.
You went to a mission with an orphanage, a clinic and a school?
I work with a consultant who was traveling there. He’s building a network … to build a hospital in Haiti. Mission Hope. They are partnering with Western New York, looking for medical professionals to staff this new hospital. It’s a whole compound.
I was brought along to see where I might assist on the leadership development side.
My hope is that graduates of our program, who were looking for ways to serve and lead, can come with me on the next trip and mentor the next generation of Haitians.
You want to arrange Skype conversations with Haitian teens and Leadership teens?
We’ve got kids here who are upset because they left their phone charger at home. For us it’s going to help us educate North American children to understand the world going on around them. We’re wanting to help them develop a purpose and a passion and a character and different way to learn.
Our students meet once a month. My hope is that we can connect at the same time with their students. This is still at the idea stage. It was an exploratory mission for me.
What was it about Haiti that moved you?
I really developed a heart for the country. The poverty is like nothing you’ll see here. There’s so many amputees in Haiti. As a result of the earthquake and car accidents.
It’s just not a safe country to travel around. You’ll see kids, they have to hang on the back of these trucks called “tap taps” to get places. Hanging off of a bar.
It results in a lot of accidents. It’s dangerous. So they’re a lot of amputees. It’s very sad to see these little children having to be outfitted with prosthetics.
Do you have any stories about how the program inspired change in its alums?
With our youth program, we challenged them in 30 days to commit an act of “servant leadership”: a service above yourself. You learn to lead by serving others.
One of the students started bringing breakfast to a boy on her bus?
He doesn’t have many friends. She figured out he doesn’t get breakfast at home. ‘I understand he has a troubled home life. I now bring breakfast for him on the bus everyday.’ Better leaders develop an ‘other person’ mindset.
One of the keys to good leadership is an absence of formal hierarchy? That seems like such a standard and classic business setup.
That’s a managerial setup. Leadership unites. You’ll find that leaders are accessible to all levels of an organization. When leadership exists, it eliminates all hierarchy and elitism. Open communication regardless of title, role, gender.
When you’re a parent and leadership exists, your children can come and talk to you about anything. Leadership is always about others.
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