History of Leadership Memphis

Leadership Memphis History from Prodigi Arts on Vimeo.

Since Leadership Memphis assembled its first class in December, 1978, it has been a powerful force in the life of its city, preparing and unleashing more than 3,500 men and women who are focused on leading Memphis ahead.

It is with this unerring eye to the horizon that Leadership Memphis works daily to equip the community leaders who come through its programs with in-depth knowledge and insights into the forces shaping the city’s future and with the relationships that fuel the collaboration and collective impact that lie at the heart of positive change. In this way, for more than four decades, Leadership Memphis has been intent on making our dreams for Memphis possible by inspiring voyages of self-discovery of engaged leadership in service to their city. Put another way, Leadership Memphis is more than a program. It is in fact a movement inspired to be an accelerant for change through a creativity that brings together knowledge and imagination to unleash new solutions.  Along the way, Leadership Memphis is an apologetic cheerleader for Memphis, operating on the belief that you can’t change your city until you change your perception of your city.

The Leadership Memphis of today has come a long way from the founding idea in 1978 to develop “an organized cadre as the result of the common experience that those in attendance have had,” in the words of legendary Memphian and Renaissance man Lucius E. Burch Jr.   In the midst of the malaise that enveloped Memphis following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he nonetheless foresaw a city that could produce a new generation of leaders to usher in a new attitude and honesty about race relations but also lead the city toward a brighter future.

The challenge confronting these civic entrepreneurs could not have been more stark, because simultaneously, national news media pointedly questioned Memphis’s future in 1978 as a result of police and fire strikes and curfews. Burch called on Junior League President Kate Gooch to drive the conversation about a leadership organization, and although its original name did not stick – The Memphis Institute of Public Responsibility – the ethos did, and even today, it is the plank of public responsibility that undergirds the foundation of the organization.

The first class had 42 members and Governor-elect Lamar Alexander spoke at the opening dinner December 13, 1978, in the shuttered Peabody Hotel, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson spoke at the opening retreat a month later, establishing diversity and inclusivity as an enduring focus for Leadership Memphis. Meanwhile, attorney A C Wharton Jr. was elected first alumni president.

Kate Gooch resigned in 1985, and a year later, an award at the Celebration of Leadership graduation ceremony was named in her honor and presented to a citizen who provided exemplary community service.

Subsequent heads of Leadership Memphis were Ann Knox, 1986-87; Ann Dillard, 1987-1992; Marion Gruber, 1992-1995; Ann Lewin, 1995-1997; Pan Awsumb, 1997-2004, and David Williams, 2004 to the present.

Volunteer Memphis was founded originally in 1975 as The Volunteer Center of Memphis by the Junior League of Memphis & the National Council of Jewish Women. In 2000, we became Volunteer Memphis and then merged with HandsOn Memphis and then evolved into Volunteer Mid-South in 2009.

In 2015, we became an action initiative of Leadership Memphis, where our 40-year history and expertise in building capacity for volunteerism and creating changemakers in our community is aligned effectively with efforts to prepare and mobilize leaders to work together for the good of the whole community.

Much has changed since the early days of Leadership Memphis, but one thing never has: the organization’s belief that leaders are the keys to ensuring that Memphis can prosper.  The founders of Leadership Memphis set out to establish an organization that would the best imaginable leadership development program for Memphis, but in the end, they developed one now recognized as one of the best in the entire country.