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A grass-roots effort seeks to transform the state's economy by nurturing Montana's leaders.

Officials from Leadership Montana hope to assemble a statewide network of people who have completed an intensive, year-long program on some of the state's most pressing issues.

Leadership Montana, a cooperative effort of Montana's business and higher education communities, was the subject of a panel discussion Thursday morning at the Montana Economic Development Summit at Montana State University-Billings.

Tom Scott, president and chief executive of First Interstate Bancsystem, said Leadership Montana took root about a year ago at a meeting of business executives.

"We decided that we don't have enough leaders," Scott said. "We have lots of potential leaders, but many of them don't have the skills and training for effective leadership."

Leaders with the right skills can help reduce polarization and knock down barriers between competing factions. Those skills are especially important in Montana, which has such a diverse environment and culture, Scott said. He said participants would be chosen for the program to reflect a broad range of ideas and cultures.

Over the past year, 16 Montana businesses and business organizations have contributed seed money to get Leadership Montana going.

The organization is now in the development phase. A leadership team, organizing committee and a governing board are all being formed. If all goes as planned, the program's first class of 40 people will graduate next year. At that rate, 200 new leaders would be trained within five years, Scott said.

Bruce Whittenberg of the Billings-based Whittenberg Group, a public relations and consulting company, said Leadership Montana could have a significant long-term benefit.

"Imagine having 200 leaders and what they could do for the state," he said.

Scott said Montana's program is being modeled after the successful Leadership Wyoming program, which has trained dozens of leaders in the Cowboy State. Leadership Wyoming, which graduated its first class in 2001, also has the distinction of having accumulated a $1 million endowment.

Don Sterhan, a Billings businessman and a member of the Montana Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said Leadership Montana aims to avoid political partisanship and avoid "business as usual" thinking.

"In Montana, we spend too much time bickering about dividing up a shrinking pie," Sterhan said. One key to expanding the state's economy is to do a better job of informing and educating people, he said.

Sterhan said Leadership Montana is a step toward "building bridges and developing a forum for building relationships."

Joanna Murray, vice president of Trustee Leadership Development Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in leadership training, said leadership styles are changing.

The model of effective leadership is changing. Where leaders were once admired for their technical skills, the new leadership model emphasizes people skills. Hierarchical, top-down management has given way to circular management models.

"You can't lead through command and control and hope it works," Murray said.

For more information on Leadership Montana, call Scott at First Interstate Bancsystem at (406) 255-5300 or Whittenberg at (406) 652-8330.

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