If you want to rule D.C., forget it. The Federal City Council (FCC), the private cadre of plutocrats that dominates District affairs, doesn’t accept applications, and unless you own half-a-dozen downtown office buildings, it’s not going to invite you to join. But if you’d be content with simply running the city, collect your résumé and two letters of recommendation and mail them to Leadership Washington (LW).
Now in its ninth year, LW has quietly established itself as the metro area’s prep school for wanna-be power brokers. Little known outside the region’s boardrooms and city halls, LW each year winnows about 80 applicants down to the 50 who have compiled the best “leadership credentials.” After the successful applicants pay LW’s $2,750 tuition—their employers usually pick up the tab—LW treats them to 10 months of leadership training, seminars on regional issues, and, most important, schmoozing with their equally civic-minded, equally ambitious classmates. Members of the class of 1994-95 include the president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, a senior vice president of Pepco, the president-elect of D.C.’s Junior League, and dozens of other aspiring players. The ranks of LW’s alumni, now more than 400 strong, swell with dozens of corporate officers, scores of nonprofit directors and high-level government bureaucrats, and four D.C. councilmembers.
“Leadership Washington has a twofold mission,” says Beverly Silverberg, the organization’s board chairwoman and (like many LW grads) a public-relations executive. “One is to educate leaders about the region. The second mission is—I hate to use the word networking—but it is networking in the very best sense of the word. It is having a group of people you can call on to make things happen.”
From its inception in the mid-’80s, Leadership Washington was intended to build—if this phrase is not an oxymoron—a democratic elite. The chamber of commerce officials and corporate bigwigs who founded LW modeled the group on leadership programs that had sprouted in dozens of U.S. cities throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Responding to suburbanization, dicey race relations, and political fragmentation, these enterprises sought to reconfigure the power structure and construct new, regional, leadership classes. The leadership programs brought together all the powers in the community for the first time, forging friendships and political links among top figures in business, government, education, and community service who would otherwise never have met.
“We were interested in identifying people who already were leaders, and were interested in expanding the scope of understanding in the region,” says Jim Culp, a retired Pepco executive and a principal founder of Leadership Washington. “We were trying to get different folks working together.”
In stark contrast to the FCC, LW has deliberately erected a not-so-old, not-so-boyish network. The FCC remains overwhelmingly white and male, and extends an offer of membership only to D.C.’s biggest big wheels: Überdevelopers (Oliver Carr); superlobbyists (Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. of Patton, Boggs & Blow), university presidents (Stephen Trachtenberg of George Washington University), and corporate potentates (Edward Mitchell, chairman of Pepco). But LW’s student body mirrors that of the metro-area population: The group apportions memberships with formulaic rigor among blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, young, old, males, and females. And LW welcomes community activists, artists, and government bureaucrats, in addition to the usual gaggle of corporate lawyers and executives.
“Forty percent of the class has a nonprofit background,” says LW President Michelle Brussard. “And all of them are committed to [service]….They are giving, giving, giving back to the community.”
Once admitted to LW, these good citizens follow a 10-month curriculum that is best described as a cross between sensitivity training and junior-high civics. According to Brussard and Program Director Phyllicia Hatton, a two-day September retreat kicked off the year, but the class didn’t begin its real work—such as it is—until a daylong program on Oct. 11: “Enhancing Leadership Styles.” Like all good schools, LW requires plenty of homework: The students prepared for the October session by taking two leadership self-tests and reading a chapter from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (LW also demands regular attendance. More than one absence and you’re expelled.) At the event itself, which was held at the Southeast office of an LW alumnus, the class enjoyed—or, depending on your point of view, endured—10 hours of seminars with titles such as “Learning From Your Leadership History and Style” and “Becoming a Visionary Leader.”
A second day of leadership training in November will follow up on “Enhancing Leadership Styles,” and in December the LW students will take a two-day class on diversity, “Embracing Ethnic and Cultural Differences: The Trust Factor.” (LW organizers believe in the jargon principle. No title is complete without a smattering of vague managementese.)
The curriculum advances to more tangible subjects in the winter and spring. The aspiring leaders devote one day to crime and the courts, another to education and social services, another to governance and economic development, and another to the arts and the environment. Along the way, LW students take a series of field trips superior to anything your high school ever offered. Class members ride a shift in a D.C. cop car, tour a hospital, quiz Lorton inmates, view the inner workings of a sewage-treatment plant, and meet ‘n’ greet local politicians. After a final two-day retreat in June—filled with touchy-feely “team-building” exercises—the students attend a gala dinner and are inducted as LW “members.”
Of a dozen LW grads questioned, not one could recall a field trip or seminar in any detail, but the squishiness of the curriculum doesn’t bother them. The principal purpose of LW, they say, is to socialize leaders, not to educate them.
Grads gush about their (ruling) class camaraderie. “Most people are too busy to make new friends [outside of work],” says Washingtonian writer Barbara Matusow, a 1991 grad. “But you get thrown in with a group of people you would not have gotten to know otherwise…and you bond. There is a new-age quality to the whole experience.”
Matusow compares LW to a fraternity or sorority, and it’s an apt analogy. LW, like Greek organizations, is obsessed with ritual and loyalty. Every class gives itself a whimsical name—“We Came First” (1987); “The Fun-Loving, Feisty Fourth” (1990); “Eight Balls of Fire” (1994). Grateful alums underwrite or play host to program days, and almost 90 percent of LW graduates preserve their old school ties by paying the organization’s $125 annual membership fee. LW even sponsors an annual November “homecoming” where graduates can reminisce, meet other alums, and take the measure of the current class. (Sadly, there is no homecoming football game pitting the LW Eager Beavers against the FCC Titans or the Greater Washington Board of Trade Plutocrats).
And, like all loyal frat rats, LW members take advantage of their family ties, proudly rattling off examples of how they have cooperated with fellow LWers. Mark Lloyd, a lawyer at Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, credits his LW year with getting him elected to the board of Iona Senior Services, a nonprofit run by his classmate Elizabeth Fox. John Moore, executive director of the African Continuum Theater Coalition, says he has solicited donations for his nonprofit organization from several LW classmates. And the community service group Greater D.C. Cares, whose founder graduated from LW, has enlisted a handful of new board members from the leadership program. (Of course, not all LW networking is quite so altruistic: One businesswoman says she calls LW classmates for free accounting and legal advice.)
Myra Peabody Gossens, president of the PR firm Ruder-Finn and a former LW chairwoman, says that LW alumni are doing exactly what the founders hoped: weaving themselves into a “tapestry,” and weaving the fragmented region together by doing good.
“If Jubilee Enterprise, the program I do volunteer work for, wants to extend its reach into Prince George’s County, the first person I will call is [Democratic nominee for county executive] Wayne Curry, who was in my class. He is going to take the call, and he is going to listen,” Gossens says.
“That is the way Leadership Washington works,” she continues. “You can call me, and if you are a Leadership Washington colleague, it really matters.”
LW’s success has inspired a spate of local imitators. Around the region, budding kingpins and queenpins are applying for Leadership Montgomery, Leadership Anne Arundel, Leadership Prince George’s, Leadership Fairfax, and Leadership Maryland. LW’s class of 1991—“The Fifth Shall Be First”—has even founded Youth Leadership Metropolitan Washington, raising the frightening possibility that future D.C.-area student council presidents will be even more preening and power-hungry than they are now.
But LW remains the minor leagues of the D.C. power game. Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co., belongs to the FCC: Her underling, Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser, graduated from LW. The FCC extends a membership to the president of American University: AU’s vice president for finance attended LW. Tuck Nason, president and CEO of the Acacia Group, serves on the FCC: Paul Schneider, Acacia’s senior vice president, is an LW alumnus. LW attracts politicians like Councilmembers Linda Cropp and Jack Evans, but Marion Barry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Sharon Pratt Kelly have never applied.
“Leadership Washington is an opportunity to meet interesting people with whom you will interact as long as you are a leader in the metro area,” says Councilmember and 1987 grad Bill Lightfoot. “But it is not a must-join organization.”