Carolyn Warman never gets tired of hearing about servant leadership.
“People become servant leaders not because they really even want to lead, but they’re selected maybe, or they select themselves and say, ‘Wow. Somebody needs to make a difference here.'”
It wasn’t always a topic people viewed as being key for high-achieving CEOs, she said, but “we’ve come a long way.”
So too has Leadership York, a nonprofit organization Warman has led for 16 years as executive director.
The nonprofit’s purpose is to train, connect and inspire individuals to serve the York community in leadership positions. Its own leader, Warman, will retire from her post as executive director at the end of June.
During her 16-year tenure, Leadership York has evolved from storing documents on a disorderly collection of 3-by-5-inch floppy disks to fostering a database of more than 3,000 leadership training alumni.
“It’s funny how you do your work and you just go and work, work, work, and all of sudden, you look up and …,” she trails off, a warm smile spreading across her face as she reflects on the organization’s impact.
What makes a good leader?
Warman came aboard Leadership York in 2000. Her friend Pat Hogg, who worked at the organization at the time, talked her into applying for the executive director opening.
“She said, ‘Carolyn, the organization really needs you,'” Warman said. “Ah, that’s a great way to get me.”
Through developing relationships and partnering with other community organizations, such as the United Way, Warman has helped Leadership York emerge as the area’s premier leadership training resource.
But she won’t say she’s an expert on leadership.
“I’m an expert at helping other people become leaders, I’ll tell you that,” Warman said.
She’s watched a diverse pool of aspiring leaders work through the organization’s Leadership Training Program, from bankers and accountants to architects and Realtors, teaching courses along the way.
For Warman, the two qualities of an effective leader – at least qualities that have worked for her – are credibility and vision.
“I think the most effective leaders know themselves,” she said. “If you can be the leader that you ought to be on the inside, you can be the leader you want to be on the outside. That’s a direct quote from John Maxwell, and it’s really very, very true. Credibility is a huge attribute of effective leaders. You can trust them. They’re honest. A lot of that comes from how well they know themselves and how they handle themselves.”
As for vision, Warman said people want to follow someone who has a plan and an idea of where they want to go. It goes hand-in-hand with credibility.
“That credibility … if you don’t have that … do you want to follow somebody who has a great vision but you don’t know if you can trust them?” she said.
Within vision, a leader should also have a “laser focus.”
“There has to be a purpose, and the purpose is why do we do things,” she said. “Here at Leadership York, I realized early on that the purpose, why we do things, is so our alumni can make a difference.”
In addition to servant leadership, Warman has enjoyed sharing with students her knowledge about running effective meetings.
“That just jazzes me,” she said, “because it has so many implications.”
When Warman teaches a session on meetings, she starts off by asking how many students have attended a great meeting, and how many have attended a terrible meeting. The latter typically draws the larger response.
“That tells me there are some really terrible meetings out there, and I think, what a waste of time,” she said, her voice full of enthusiasm. “Think about how much more productive we would be as a country, not just York. But really. See how excited I get? Ridiculous.”
A common misconception of what it takes to be an effective leader is the idea that a person can learn how to lead merely by reading a lot of books, Warman said.
“I’m a big proponent of learning by doing, and that’s how I learned to be a leader,” she said. “I think you can be born with some natural attributes that will help – your ability to get along with other people, your comfort with yourself. Books can be helpful in thinking through and practicing, but you can’t really learn how to be a leader by reading a book or a blog post.”
“But you can read about how to run an effective meeting, and then go try it,” she said.
Learning by doing
Warman speaks from experience when it comes to learning by doing.
She graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in biology in the late 1970s and applied for jobs at drug companies and labs. But the country faced a recession, making it hard to find work.
Fortunately Warman had volunteered for a family planning agency during school, so when she and her husband moved to York in 1979, she found a volunteering opportunity at Planned Parenthood. From there, she nabbed a job training family planning providers around the state.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I was 23 years old, but I said, ‘All right. I’ll give it a try.'”
In her role, she learned about adult learning and experiential learning. Instead of just talking at the people the agency was training, they would create team-building activities and quizzes, and pose questions for small group discussions.
The grant that funded her position ran out after a few years, but Family-Child Resources was looking to hire someone who could teach parenting classes.
“I have no idea why they hired me,” Warman said, laughing. “I did have the adult learning experience, but I had no children.”
She taught classes, developed new curricula, and then she had children, which made her even better at teaching, she said. She even started a course for parents of infants, which was fun since her children – Nick and Laura – were infants at the time.
“It turned out that learning how to help other adults learn and grow is what I did my whole career,” she said. “Who knew? All because I volunteered at Gettysburg’s family planning center.”
An exciting time for York
During her years at Leadership York, Warman has had a front-row seat to the revitalization happening in the city.
Warman herself graduated from the Leadership Training Program in 1985, a time when York was still healing from major events of the 1960s and 1970s.
“There were riots downtown,” she said. “There were a couple people who died. The National Guard came in. Then we had flooding in the early 70s from Hurricane Agnes.”
Leadership York challenged her thinking on those topics.
“My eyes were really opened to the fact that a lot of the issues in the city were related to those incidents of the past, and how now were we going to help address those issues? How were we going to recover the housing that was lost after the flooding? How were we going to repair some of the racial issues that had resulted, as well as some of the geographical issues that had arisen?”
Today, Warman is excited about the future of York County.
“It was exciting when the Susquehanna Commerce buildings went up,” she said. “The White Rose wasn’t even here. I mean, it’s a hub now. The (Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center) needed revitalization, and that’s happened. The (York Revolution) stadium has been huge in bringing people downtown, and now we also have all the market shops filling up on Market Street, Beaver Street and the arts district. I have great hope for this city. I really do.”
For York to continue that progress, Warman said the city and the county need a lot of leaders.
“I think that the growth we’re experiencing has been partly supported by the established leaders, but part of the growth has been very organic and ground-up,” she said. “It’s exciting to me that the leadership roles are open to more people than they were when I started in 2000.”
Back then, Warman said many people felt a new idea needed to “kind of go through the channels” to make sure that organizations and leaders agreed on it. Today, there are people just setting out on their own to open shop in York and eyeing urban development. There are “more players” today, she said.
“I hope (Leadership York) continues to ensure its programming is relevant because we need to develop the leaders this community needs, at whatever level they are, and there are certainly people we aren’t reaching,” she said. “I know they’re out there.”
Leadership York has more than 3,000 alumni striving to make a difference in the White Rose City and beyond. A few years ago, the organization established a new vision statement, declaring that Leadership York would be the premier organization recognized for leadership development, Warman said.
“Last year as we were reviewing that vision, we all agreed we already achieved this,” she said. “That’s very exciting, that as an organization, we are relevant. We make a difference.”
It’s a result Warman names as one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of looking back on her tenure.
“One woman told me that she’s a better mom, a better wife and a better employee because she is more connected to the community and to other people in the community,” she said of one graduate of the Leadership Training Program. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Other people have told me that, too, but to hear it that way was just amazing.”
“People tell us they make good friends, and it really encourages them to serve the community in leadership positions, and they get to go out and make a difference, and don’t get me wrong, that’s all wonderful, but for her to tell me that,” she trails off, a jubilant smile once again stretching from ear to ear.
Following her departure, Warman plans to do some consulting related to nonprofit organization governance, but she’s working with Leadership York to ensure she isn’t stealing business.
“I can’t imagine a life without helping people run effective meetings, you know,” she joked.
She’s looking forward to traveling with her husband, Tom. They’re avid birders, so a trip to Rocky Ridge in the fall for hawk migration is in the works.
Warman also hopes to stay involved in Leadership York.
“I’ve grown to love this organization,” she said. “I’ll miss the people very much.”