Tammy White: A servant’s heart shaping servant leaders

Larry Van GuilderOur Town Leaders

Think of Leadership Knoxville as a business and its product servant leaders.


Tammy White, the organization’s president and CEO grew up in Walhalla, South Carolina, a town of about 4,000 she described as being “very much like Mayberry,” the fictional community whose hero, Sheriff Andy Taylor, embodied quite a few servant leader traits himself.

When White joined Leadership Knoxville (LK) a decade ago, its “Flagship Program” was already 25 years old. About 50 community leaders go through the 10-month program every year, and since Jim Haslam founded the group in 1984 about 1,500 have graduated from that first and still premier program.

Tammy White

Today, LK’s programs recognize development as a “continuum” that runs from youths to seniors, White said. Growing beyond the Flagship Program, the expanded program list includes, Leadership Knoxville Scholars, a two-year commitment for rising college juniors; Youth Leadership Knoxville, a program for rising high school juniors; and Introduction Knoxville, whose aim is to acquaint professionals with the people and issues that mold the present and the future of Knoxville.

LK is a lean organization. The staff numbers six, including the CEO. Samantha Edwards, the director of strategic partnerships and initiatives, credits White’s leadership with the growing outreach of LK’s varied programs. White “walks the walk,” Edwards said.

“In the last 10 years we’ve become more reflective of our community,” she added, noting the advances made during White’s tenure.

The concept of the servant leader is firmly grounded in history. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are often cited as models of servant leadership. An important part of LK’s organizational philosophy is that every leader is a servant.

The servant leader is a person of character and a skilled communicator. Key traits include putting people first, collaborating with compassion and foresight.

“Great cities don’t just happen,” White said, “great cities happen because of great leaders.”

LK believes those great leaders will come from the ranks of servant leaders. Identifying and retaining the “best and the brightest” among them is a way of paying it forward to coming generations.

Samantha Edwards

The seven Torchbearers in the latest LK Scholars class attest to notable success in identifying the brightest. Pairing participants in the Scholars program with LK alumni is a way to reinforce servant leadership principles and encourage staying in or returning to the community.

“We’re constantly reevaluating and reassessing ourselves,” White said. “How can we make what we do better?”

One way is to offer new programs like “corporate social responsibility.” Look for that one in the near future.

“Some may think of us as ‘elitist,’ White said. “We aren’t.” In fact, the aim is to attain even greater diversity in their classes and that, she added, is exactly what Haslam had in mind from the beginning.

Visit Leadership Knoxville online to learn more about the programs it offers.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor of KnoxTNToday.

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