Brien Poffenberger: Celebrating 25 years of leadership in Washington County


This week, Leadership Washington County will graduate its 25th class and celebrate a quarter century of shaping the future of our community.

The program’s first few classes drew from a tier of community leaders who had already risen to the top of their fields — the executives and presidents, the plant managers and business owners. 

Those first few years tightened an already existing web of connections, adding breadth to class members already deeply committed to our community.  It wasn’t long, though, before the program had worked its way through the corner offices and needed long-term relevance. It found that relevance in leadership development and community vision. Along the way, it built a curriculum that teaches the very skills Washington County needs for success.

The program — originally called Leadership Hagerstown — was born in the Chamber of Commerce, and after nearly 20 years, it spun off to form a stand-alone nonprofit. With a succession of dynamic executive directors, the program has sought out the community’s emerging leaders who would benefit from a broad view of Washington County and who, in turn, could use that understanding to help shape our future.

Class members engage with the community, challenging assumptions and pitting strongly held opinions against one another. They meet key people and ask key questions, but they also debate among themselves, creating a year-long exchange of ideas. And from this exchange of ideas, they distill a vision of the future that informs not only what they do day-to-day, but also how best to engage the broader world on which Washington County increasingly depends.

That broader world is not always friendly to Washington County, and here the dividends of the Leadership program, with its 600 alumni, really pay off. 

The jurisdictions along the I-95 corridor have the lion’s share of Maryland’s economic heft and so they get the lion’s share of power and influence.  And this is true not just in politics, but also in business, education, health care — you name it. 

It is the language of power politics, however, that explains how the Leadership program can help even the odds.

Opinion leaders divide the world of influence between “hard power” and “soft power.”   Hard power orders, demands, and coerces. It does not require buy-in; it requires dominance, and it can only be used successfully when wielded from a position of strength. 

Hard power is decisive, but it can also be divisive, and it almost always depends on maintaining the imbalance that enabled its use in the first place.

Soft power, by contrast, is the art of persuasion where a weaker player convinces a stronger one to do its bidding. It converts knowledge of the opponent into leverage, and it requires great skill and a broad view.  It takes more energy, thought and patience, but its successes — while incremental — can be cumulative and more enduring.

Because of the power imbalance in Maryland, of the two options, Washington County’s future lies in the successful use of soft power — convincing other actors around the state to work on Washington County’s behalf. 

This strategy depends on the very skills Leadership Washington County promotes: relationship development, consensus building, mutual respect, and understanding the big picture. 

As the Leadership program congratulates Class XXV on this week’s graduation, the Chamber congratulates Leadership Washington County for the contribution it has made to the future of our community.

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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