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Leadership Institute stresses community immersion


One year ago, Reed Rinderknecht, a director of marketing and client relations at the Foster Group, decided that even though he had lived in Greater Des Moines for seven years, he didn’t know the community as well as he wanted to.

The West Des Moines resident, who is now 33 years old, was active in his church, devoted to his family and busy with work. Despite his schedule, he felt there was something missing.

“There was so much going on in Des Moines that I hadn’t been exposed to,” he said. “I spend most of my time in West Des Moines, so I didn’t have a chance to experience a lot of what was going on downtown or find out what the other areas of the city had to offer.”

That changed in September, when he began a nine-month course at Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute. For more than two decades, the Institute has been helping Des Moines area residents learn more about the community and how they can spark improvement wherever they see an opportunity.

During their at the Institute, which is affiliated with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, students focus their time equally on learning about the community, building leadership skills and applying what they’ve learned on some tangible project.

“I had my eyes opened up to the things that are going on here that all of us can be a part of,” said Rinderknecht, who graduated from the program earlier this month. “I’ve stepped out of my little home and really now have a better feel for how I can better support things in the community and be more actively involved in things that make a difference.”

The Leadership Institute can trace its roots to 1979, when the Metro 2000 Committee was created to determine what leadership traits would be needed for the year 2000 and beyond.

Arthur Davis, a prominent Des Moines attorney who later became the city’s mayor, is credited as the Institute’s founder, according to Executive Administrator Mary Knueven. Classes began in 1982. Since then, 18 classes, comprising nearly 850 people, have graduated.

“Davis wanted to get something together to train people to be better leaders and to get more involved in the community,” Knueven said.

As part of the training, students develop and carry out projects that are designed to benefit the community. Projects from the most recent graduating class included an idea for a shuttle bus in downtown Des Moines that would carry riders from the Capitol to the riverfront or the proposed Science Center of Iowa or to other popular downtown attractions.

Though plans for the shuttle are complete, the service has not yet been launched because its developers decided to wait until the Science Center, the downtown Public Library and other projects are finished.

Another group of students built a playground for children as their project. A third group developed a curriculum for a youth-oriented leadership program modeled on the Institute. The Youth Leadership Institute, geared to high school sophomores and juniors, is expected to begin in September with 25 students, Knueven said.

The class of 2003 had 56 students. Most classes are held to about 50 participants. More than 100 people either apply for the program or are nominated. Students are chosen based on merit, leadership experience and community involvement.

Classes meet weekly on Thursday afternoons for about three hours, beginning at 4 p.m., Knueven said. The 2004 class will be chosen by the end of June, she said.

More than 50 Des Moines-area companies support the Leadership Institute financially, including life insurer AmerUs Group Co., insurance broker Holmes Murphy & Associates, performance marketing company ITA Group Inc., energy utility Mid-American Energy Co., office furniture seller Storey-Kenworthy Co. and contractor Weitz Co.

Chad Rasmussen is another 2003 graduate of the Institute. Much like his classmate, Rinderknecht, Rasmussen was a transplant to Des Moines and wanted to gain a deeper knowledge of the city.

Rasmussen, a vice president of asset management at Terrus Real Estate Group in Des Moines, said he graduated from the program “with lifelong friends.”

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “What I found is that you learn so much more about people’s companies and what exactly those companies do. You get to know these people and you become more involved.”

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