Ann Ackerman: A flagship of Oklahoma leadership

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Ann Ackerman speaks
Enjoying an evening with the class in Krebs

Ann Ackerman: A flagship of Oklahoma leadership

By Tim Farley

For the past 9 ½ years, Ann Ackerman has helped develop about 1,400 of Oklahoma’s most influential leaders with backgrounds that provide a true cross-section of the state.

Ackerman, chief executive officer of Leadership Oklahoma, is leaving that post June 30. However, she recalled in a recent interview with some of the people that have come through the leadership classes over the last 27 years. Ackerman served as a board member of Leadership Oklahoma prior to being hired as CEO.

“Each class really is a microcosm of the state,” she said. “We have people who are as different as night and day when it comes to their professions, ethnicity, age and gender. Only through understanding different perspectives can we move forward as a state.”

Each year, 50 leaders from Woodward to Broken Bow and from Miami to Altus come together and learn about Oklahoma. They spend two days a month for nine months hearing from experts that deal with major issues involving education, immigration, criminal justice, military, economic development, agriculture, energy, tribal affairs and state government.

Some of the former Leadership Oklahoma students are household names and others went back to their communities to share their newly acquired wealth of knowledge. Over the years, students have represented just about every county and city in Oklahoma. Some of the students included former Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, former Gov. Brad Henry, Attorney General Scott Pruitt and former congressmen Dan Boren and J.C. Watts. They also have included utility workers from western Oklahoma, telephone company employees from the northeastern part of the state and bankers and insurance reps from all over.

But once a new Leadership Oklahoma class convenes, titles and last names are thrown out the window. A person’s profession or standing in the community isn’t considered relevant any longer.

“It breaks down the barriers and opens dialogue,” Ackerman said. “What happens in LOK stays in LOK. It allows you to express yourself and learn.”

Dealing with 50 Type-A personalities at one time can be a difficult job, much like “pulling teeth,” she said. However, in most cases the students self-correct each other, particularly if one class member is trying to dominate the conversation.

Ackerman, a member of the first Leadership Oklahoma class, has fond memories of each class and tries to stay in contact with as many as possible. As a way of staying connected, Leadership Oklahoma alumni are invited on a regular basis to attend specific events that deal with current topics. For instance, alumni were invited to Cushing in March to discuss the Keystone Pipeline and its impact on the energy sector.

“We’ve met in Altus to discuss the drought situation and we’ve met in Oklahoma City to talk about the film industry in Oklahoma,” she said.

Graduates don’t leave their Leadership Oklahoma materials and knowledge on a dusty shelf somewhere. Instead, they apply that education on a daily basis in their careers and oftentimes on a much broader scale. In some instances, graduates have gone on to seek political office or become involved in issues they learned about at Leadership Oklahoma.

Ackerman’s role

As CEO, Ackerman has had an “amazing opportunity to get to know 50 new great people every year.”

“I could have a flat tire anywhere in Oklahoma and I’d have it fixed in five minutes,” she said, with a smile. “I am the facilitator, the one who cracks the whip.”

There are others, such as the organization’s volunteers and board of directors, who make each leadership class happen, she said.

Not every class is the same in terms of issues or places that class members will visit. Current topics often dictate where class members will go. In recent years, Oklahoma’s ongoing drought and capital punishment issues have been big discussion items, so trips to western Oklahoma and McAlester are almost assured.

Military issues often take class members to Fort Sill in Lawton where class members and Ackerman perform PT, eat MREs and see firsthand how young soldiers live, eat and breathe.

“They literally take kids, 18 year-old kids, and turn them into soldiers in a short time,” she said.

There have also been trips to death row at the McAlester State Penitentiary and the munitions plant in the same city. Trips involving tourism might include Beaver’s Bend, which Ackerman described as a “hidden treasure.”

But what lies ahead for Leadership Oklahoma?

Although she’s leaving in June, Ackerman predicts a bright future for the organization, which also has a youth program that is similar to the adult version. The students, who juniors in high school, spend a week during the summer going to key destinations in Oklahoma.

“We make them feel responsible for the future of Oklahoma,” Ackerman said.

The program has created some close bonds among the high schoolers, including college roommates and in one instance a marriage.

“There are always new ways of doing things out there but those two programs will always be with us,” she said. “We’re always building new leaders and we want to keep our young people here.”

Age diversity among class members is occurring more now than ever before, Ackerman said.

“We have people in their 50s and 60s and we have younger people stepping out there early in life. So, we have 30 year-olds and 60-year-olds learning from each other and the different generational perspectives,” she said.

Leadership Oklahoma began in 1986 when a group of leaders begin talking about the state’s prosperity and problems. They discovered that leaders must understand the complex differences and relationships that drive Oklahoma in order to find effective solutions. The organization is funded by membership fees, adult program tuition and private donations.

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