What I Learned in San Antonio (on the Commerce Lexington trip) by Nick Such

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GUEST OPINION, BY NICK SUCH

“We arrive at our hotel. By Boat.”

Last week, I had the privilege to participate in Commerce Lexington’s Annual Leadership visit in San Antonio, TX. Since 1974, our local chamber of commerce has been organizing these trips that bring together business, government, academic, and community leaders to travel to another city. The “visit” aspect (versus just a group meeting somewhere in Lexington) serves two purposes:

  1. Find inspiration from other cities that are doing cool things
  2. Bring Lexington’s leaders together in a new environment, free from the distractions of home

The Leadership Visits have been the nexus for some of Lexington’s great assets, including Thursday Night Live which was inspired by a visit to Greenville, SC. On this visit, one of the highlights of San Antonio was the River Walk, now a major tourist attraction and downtown focal point, but once just a trickling stream. What not many people know is that there is a similar stream that flows under Lexington. On this trip, we learned that the Town Branch Creek is perhaps more voluminous than the creek that feeds the San Antonio River. The difference is, San Antonio chose to design a beautiful, open waterway. In Lexington, we conveniently diverted our creek through a buried pipe. For a city often described as “conservative”, the notion of unearthing a buried stream and manufacturing a downtown river is nothing short of audacious. But, looking at Lexington’s history, you may be surprised to learn that we have a penchant for progressive public-private partnerships. I hope we take a gamble on this.

With all the focus on the river, another key aspect of our host city was under-emphasized: young leaders are critical in shaping the city of San Antonio. In our trip program, all participants under the age of 40 were denoted as “Emerging Leaders.”  I commented to my friends before the trip In San Antonio, “If Mark Zuckerberg, age 28, lived in Lexington, would he be considered emerged yet?” I did notice a difference in San Antonio. People in that age range are just called LEADERS. However, that designation was objectively earned. They didn’t wait for a 40th birthday party to receive permission to lead at the forefront of their city. They just went out and made it happen. The two examples with whom I’m most familiar are:

  • Julian Castro
    • Mayor of San Antonio (7th largest city in the USA)
    • Age 37 (Mayor since 2009, age 34)
  • Lanham Napier
    • CEO of Rackspace (>$1B annual revenue)
    • Age 41 (CEO since 2006, age 35)

There are a few notable similarities about these two leaders. First, both are from Texas. They didn’t have to be sold on why they should live there. Both have graduate degrees from Harvard (Castro in Law, Napier in Business). This doesn’t make them inherently better leaders (heck, they even let me into HBS), but it does guarantee that they know what world-class means, and demonstrate that they aren’t scared to chase after it. Also, they are in terminal positions. They can’t move any higher up within their organizations, so the only way to achieve greater things is to drag the whole organization up with you. This differs from some of Lexington’s young leaders who are not in terminal, but transient leadership positions. The best basketball player in Lexington will leave for the NBA. Even within the world of sports, San Antonio’s professional basketball team, the Spurs, provide a terminal post, and one that is noted for its world-class leadership transitions.

I have a friend who works with Steve Westly, an advocate of rotating involvement in the 3 major sectors of society: business, government, and academia (I’d argue that religion fits in there as well). Looking at those three sectors, who are some of our young, already-emerged leaders within terminal organizations here in Lexington? I’ll offer a few (this list is far from exhaustive, and is based totally on my familiarity):

Last year, I wrote about the departure of many of Lexington’s leaders. With the World Equestrian Games and other recent successes, I was worried that Lexington would go downhill following their departure. Now, I look at this in a different light. Perhaps these departing leaders had one last bit of insight: the most effective action they could take was to hand off the torch to a new generation. And while earlier I perceived the under-40 designation as a form of ageism, it’s in fact a testament to the associated wisdom of Lexington’s leaders. Those who recognize this gap are doing something about it. The reason that I, and many of the other young professionals, were able to attend this trip was through the generous private donations that provided Emerging Leader scholarships. Far from excluding, Lexington’s current crop of leaders is actively including their younger peers. But, as the saying (rather apropos in equine land) goes, “You can lead a horse to water…”

Dear leaders of my generation: the torch is now in our hands. It’s our calling to make Lexington a world-class awesome city. Let’s roll.



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