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Learning under limitations: Leadership Rowan program adapts to COVID-19 restraints

SALISBURY — Emotions were high as 22 local leaders discussed the most pressing issues facing the country, state and county at Morgan Ridge Vineyards late last month.

Among those in attendance were hospital administrators, artists and educators — all of whom belong to the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce’s 28th Leadership Rowan class.

They were participating in SIMSOC, an activity that has become a staple of the Leadership Rowan retreat — the event that kicks off the 10-month long leadership program. SIMSOC, which stands for simulated society, is a game designed to catalyze conversation and critical thinking about societal problems. Participants are split into teams and assigned resources, with some receiving less than others. It’s a time when vulnerability is encouraged and emotions are laid on the line. It’s also an event that sets the tone for the rest of the program.

“I feel like the fact that they hosted SIMSOC on the first day gave us an opportunity to bond with our classmates going forward,” said Lorie Aldridge, director of marketing and sales at Trinity Oaks.

That bonding opportunity happens every year. But this time it was done differently.

Typically, the Leadership Rowan retreat is composed of two days away from Salisbury in a retreat setting. It’s a time for classmates to become closer due to a lack of distractions and structured activities. Due to COVID-19 health concerns, the chamber decided to alter this year’s plans.

“Normally you go on a retreat somewhere out of town and you go up on a bus together and all that sort of stuff,” said Elaine Spalding, president of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, with the coronavirus, we didn’t think it was wise to take people on an overnight trip and have them on a bus. We thought it was safer to do the retreat in town.”

Boasting plenty of outdoor space and airy indoor rooms, Morgan Ridge Vineyards was selected as the venue. The vineyard was a cushier location than is normally chosen, Spalding said.

“The place where we normally have the retreat is very Spartan,” Spalding said. “It’s not a luxury hotel.”

Other changes to the retreat included participants wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other. Even with those measures in place, classmates still found ways to form connections. Nick Means, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Rowan Steering Committee, said that he was impressed by the way the new classmates communicated with each other.

“To see the new class form relationships and friendships that will last a lifetime right before your eyes is a beautiful thing,” Means said.

The retreat is only the jumping off point for the Leadership Rowan program. In a typical year, members of the class will spend one day each month traveling to a business, farm or school in the county and learning about resources and challenges in Rowan County. As a result of COVID-19 restrictions that are still in place, some of those hands-on, in-person events could turn into Zoom calls. 

That means classmates will have less time on buses and in between sessions to form relationships. During the retreat, classmates promised each other that they would strive to network and strengthen connections with each other.

“We’re going to work hard,” Aldridge said. “Even though we can’t do some of the things that other classes have been able to do in the past, we’re going to work hard to bond and form connections.”

Going through Leadership Rowan during such an unpredictable time may seem challenging, but some classmates are viewing it as a chance to learn how to network and show leadership in a time when virtual interactions are increasing, but real problems still exist.

“I think that that’s part of our classes’ learning experience is learning how to still get meaningful, intentional information and how to build those partnerships virtually because that’s what we’re all having to do right now. It’s kind of a privilege to be in this program this year,” said Sarah Walker, chief officer of governance, advancement and community relations at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. “This experience is important for all of us as leaders to adapt to this new world, knowing that we may not be able to go to these places in person. I think the most critical piece to take away from that is that our community still needs this leadership, it still needs to be fostering the leaders of the future so that we can be ready for tomorrow regardless of COVID.”

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