JULY 7, 2015 - VOL. 50 No. 10

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Leadership Sioux Falls: Investing in tomorrow´s leaders today pays dividends after three decades

By Amy Smolik
Marketing & Communications Manager

With the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce´s Leadership Sioux Falls program set to start its 30th class later this summer, it´s appropriate to take a look back at some of the successes: 29 classes. 850-plus graduates. One governor. Countless other elected officials. Leaders in the public and private sectors. Community volunteers. Difference-makers.

In 1986, the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce explored the need to create a way to meet the growing needs for active participation of informed and dedicated community leaders. Many communities across the nation had "community leadership" programs, many organized by chambers of commerce. As a result of those early discussions, the Leadership Sioux Falls program was developed.

Today, Leadership Sioux Falls remains a unique opportunity for emerging and existing leaders to build, collaborate and steward a vibrant, connected community in the Sioux Falls area. The program is designed to expose participants to the issues that face the community while challenging and engaging them to strengthen the community and themselves through personal development and civic engagement.

Leadership Sioux Falls strives to create awareness and to connect leaders with both challenges and opportunities; it is not an academic leadership training program. Sessions are held monthly, October through May. Applications are now available for the 30th class and are due in August. Exact dates and times for the 2015 class are listed at


By teaching people about the community, the goal is to encourage them to contribute to improving the community. The program has these cornerstone values: to develop long-lasting relationships and stimulate communications with other leaders; to share the inner workings of the community and challenges it faces; to motivate and encourage participants to assume leadership roles in community affairs; to assist those already in leadership roles to increase their access to additional positions of community leadership in an informed and responsible manner; and to define each individual´s role and responsibility as a leader within the community.

Many graduates go on to serve the community in various volunteer leadership roles. Eight graduates have chaired the Chamber´s Board of Directors with 29 total serving as directors. Leadership Sioux Falls graduates can be found in positions across the community, from financial, healthcare and non-profit to education, development and hospitality. Several graduates have gone on to serve as elected officials, including the following serving in their current positions: Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether, city councilor Dean Karsky, school board member Doug Morrison, Minnehaha County Commissioner Gerald Beninga, Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead, and state legislators Deb Soholt and Mark Willadsen. Many others have also served as elected officials.


Leadership Sioux Falls uses the community as its classroom. Each year, curriculum is developed with the idea of creating an integrated, total experience for participants. An executive committee oversees the curriculum development and evaluates the application process.

Over an eight-month period, participants are given an in-depth look at specific topics of community interest and importance through a series of sessions. The topics change as the issues, challenges and opportunities of the community change. Sessions are designed to be interactive, stimulating and thought-provoking. Participants are expected to share their unique experiences and learn from one another. For some graduates, memories of specific classes stick with them long after graduation.

"I always enjoy exercises that help me understand what makes me and others tick, and I remember the session we had about birth order and the task to ‘plan a party in your birth order groups,´" said Sarah Jennings, AARP South Dakota and LSF-21 graduate. "After our allotted time to plan our party, we shared our party plans with each other, and I remember much laughter as the Oldest group – who were sort of irritated they had to throw a party at all – groaned and showed total disgust at the Youngest group´s blowout party plans."

Jennings said the facilitator then uncovered words on flipcharts from past classes who had done the same exercise.

"Sure enough, every Youngest group planned a blowout and every Oldest group planned the most controlled party possible with the Middles trying to figure out a way to get everyone involved in their party. I don´t remember what the Only Children group did," Jennings said. "It was a telling exercise and a lot of fun – and for the record, I´m a Youngest!"

Some elements of each year´s curriculum remain the same, including a bus tour of the city.

"At the time the most memorable thing was the bus tour of the city and seeing the things you don´t drive by every today. It opened my eyes to things you don´t pay attention to," said Gary Gaspar, Interstate Office Products and LSF-12 graduate. "For someone who just came back to the community, one of the best things about Leadership Sioux Falls is that it was a good way to get up to speed quickly. I gained a good understanding of the business community, leaned about government, education and non-profit opportunities. Engaging with those leaders gave me a broad perspective of how our community works and operates."

LSF-24 graduate Amy Pokela, Good Samaritan Foundation, still remembers lessons learned from her classes. "Two things really stuck with me. The first one was the day we learned about media and having a media plan. The part that stuck with me is when the presenter asked if you and your business would be prepared to handle the media if the worst thing you could think of happened. There hasn´t been a group that I have worked with since that I haven´t thought of this statement," she said.

Classes are held at locations across the community. During Pokela´s class, the group took a hard-hat tour of the Avera Prairie Center as it was under construction.

"This space has so many personal touches. Just hearing about all the thought that went into every aspect of the building was powerful. But the thing that has stayed with me the most is something you can´t see. Inside the walls of that building are messages from cancer survivors and families written on the inside of the drywall to provide blessings on the people using that space for treatments. There were quotes, bible verses, drawings and other blessings spread out across the entire space. It was awe-inspiring to see and to know the emotion that went into those messages," Pokela said.


Leadership Sioux Falls graduates stay connected through a number of ways, through friendships formed, social media and serving as community leaders together. For example, Gaspar and his LSF classmate John Henkhaus, The Everist Company, both joined the Chamber´s Board of Directors last fall.

"There are people from Leadership Sioux Falls who have become close personal friends and others remain in more of a professional capacity. One thing is for sure, if we bump into each other around town, we always stop to chat," Pokela said.

Social media provides another mechanism for alumni to stay connected. There is a Leadership Sioux Falls group on Facebook and LinkedIn. Both groups are great ways to stay in touch. Alumni can ask to join either group by searching "Leadership Sioux Falls" in each application.

Nothing can beat reconnecting face-to-face, however, which is one of the reasons why Brooke White organizes a monthly get togethers for alumni. White, who works for the South Dakota Department of Transportation and graduated with LSF-25, is in touch with nearly every member of her class and has taken it upon herself to be the social coordinator for all classes in general. A monthly luncheon takes place the second Wednesday of each month except June-August when a monthly happy hour is scheduled. Attendance continues to grow, White said, and she encourages all alumni to get in touch to join the group. Contact White or use the social media groups to stay informed about the monthly gatherings.


Leadership Sioux Falls alumni are some of the best advocates and advertisements for the program. Jennings estimates that more than half the staff at AARP South Dakota are LSF graduates who have found value in networking or having their eyes opened to issues they should be working on because of personal interest or how the issue connects to their work at AARP.

White said she whole-heartedly recommends the program to others each year. She thinks the future of the community depends upon tomorrow´s potential leaders. By developing young professionals through programs like Leadership Sioux Falls, the community´s vision can be continued into the future.

"I think LSF is such a boost to a professional career no matter what your profession," she said. "The program offers such a variety of topics that it´s hard to say it´s only applicable to one specific type of job. It´s an amazing program for amazing members of our community."

An investment made by business leaders nearly 30 years ago continues to pay dividends to the community - there are even some second generation alumni. Pokela recognizes that applying for Leadership Sioux Falls – being willing to put yourself out there – is one of the first steps to being an active part of the community.

"Leadership Sioux Falls creates a professional sense of pride that can´t be summed up in one thing. The program taught me that I share the same skills as people who work in a very different world than mine, such as banking verses nonprofit," she said. "There are so many people moving into Sioux Falls every year that a program like Leadership Sioux Falls is critical to help leaders connect in a meaningful way. This program is so much more than networking. This program interweaves learning with connection between generations and that is something very needed to continue moving Sioux Falls forward."

Gaspar credits Sioux Falls community leaders´ ability to work together as something special, which helps the community continue to thrive. Participants are exposed to the community´s inner workings as part of the program, which gives them perspective, he said.

"I really feel that a majority of the people in Sioux Falls are all working for the common good and growth and prosperity of the community. It bears out in our success – I don´t think it happens by accident," Gaspar said. "Collectively, Leadership Sioux Falls, the Chamber, the school systems, business community and government seem to work pretty well in partnership. We´re all in the boat and moving in the same direction - working together among different constituencies. It takes those programs that bring us together to keep that going. Leadership Sioux Falls does that."


Applications are available at under the Programs tab. Applications are due to the Chamber office by 5 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2015. Contact Kate Foley for more information about the program: (605) 373-2002 or

Leadership Sioux Falls applicants must:
Have participated in past community and professional activities
Be a current resident or employed in the Sioux Falls metro area
Be over the age of 25
Be able to attend all required sessions
Commit to serving and strengthening the community upon completion of the program
Previous applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for the program again.

The program has these cornerstone values:
To develop long-lasting relationships and stimulate communications with other leaders
To discover the inner workings of your community and challenges it faces
To motivate and encourage participants to assume leadership roles in community affairs
To assist those already in leadership roles to increase their access to additional positions of community leadership in an informed and responsible manner
To define your individual role and responsibility as a leader within your community

In general, the following topics are covered:
Arts and culture and the visitor industry
Economic development
Human/social services and non-profit service
Leadership styles and communication
Legislative and government
Quality of life

Approximately 30 applicants are chosen by the Leadership Sioux Falls Selection Committee to participate in each class. The quality of the participants is the primary strength of the program. They represent the public and private sectors and civic and community organizations in the Sioux Falls area. They are most apt to utilize their leadership for the long-term benefit of the community. Attention is given to ensure diversity among class participants in both their life experiences and their areas of employment.

Tuition is $475 and is non-refundable. Participants who are selected but fail to meet the time commitment will be dropped from the program and will not receive a tuition refund.


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