PILOT MOUNTAIN — Anyone feeling doubts about youth picking up leadership where their predecessors have left off needs to speak with Luke Merritt.
Merritt has returned from General Tommy Franks Four Star Leadership program in Oklahoma City, Okla., after an exhaustive week of training in July. The program’s curriculum is built around four core principles, character, common vision, communication and caring.
The program is a partnership between the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute & Museum, the National Center for Policy Analysis and Oklahoma Christian University’s Academy of Leadership & Liberty.The rising East Surry junior became acquainted with the program through JROTC at East Surry.
Merritt was encouraged to apply by his JROTC adviser 1st Sgt. Ronald Montgomery. Part of the application included a five-minute video on a local issue. Merritt chose littering.
“You had to list things that included sports you played, community involvement and academics and things that separate you from others,” explained Merritt. He said that out of 100 applications nationwide, his was one of 50 that was accepted. He also said that the leadership program pays for the campers to participate in the week-long event.
“Flying by myself was a first,” began Merritt. “I landed in Chicago. It was huge! Pretty soon I figured out that the Four Star campers were the ones moving quicker than everyone else. I spotted them right away and followed.”
He found out that most of the participants were from northern and western areas of the country.
“A lot of the first day and into the second day myself and another guy from Georgia were just asked to talk,” said Merritt. “They loved our accent. Most of the guys there want to be in the military, so we had that in common.” Merritt’s love of soccer also helped him quickly settle in with the group.
In true military fashion, the group was about to “hit the ground running” as they attended the first meeting of the program.
“The last presenter, who specialized in persuasive writing, went all out on telling us the requirements,” recalled Merritt. She told them they had to write a persuasive paper on a topic regardless of being for or against the issue. She added that they also must present a persuasive speech and form a congress that would debate topics. They would get the remainder of Sunday night to read the information on topics for Monday.
“At the end of the week they said one of the things they were trying to do was stress us out,” said Merritt. “She pretty much did.”
Monday, the group focused on learning to communicate well. They were taken to the Freedom 43 News Studio and talked with news personnel about how they attracted and kept people’s attention.
Next was a talk with two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Michelle Smith. The fastpitch softball great was told an injured arm would keep her from ever pitching again. Smith came back to pitch in the 1996 Olympics and the speed of her pitches improved by three-miles an hour. Merritt stressed the importance of diversity, perseverance and controlling emotions to achieve goals.
“Our days were packed with time free for meals only and we had to go to bed at 11,” said Merritt. “They told us at the end that we had learned in a week what people normally get a month to learn.”
The program’s agenda allowed the participants to interact with influential persons such as Oklahoma State Sen. David Holt, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Greg Slovinik and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilivagiva.
The mid-week highlight for the group was seeing the General Tommy Franks Leadership Museum.
“It was a tour through General Franks’ whole life,” said Merritt. They were told Franks was being transported to Pakistan on a helicopter on Sept. 11, the day the Twin Towers were destroyed. Reportedly, the U.S. Secretary of State called him, told him the situation and asked him “what do you think and what are you going to do about it?”
“General Franks told us he told the secretary that it was Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and it was set in motion from Afghanistan,” recalled Merritt. “He said as leaders we were going to get that question all our life.” Merritt also said Franks told them leaders must find a way to get along. He stressed that leaders can be totally different but they have to find a solution.
“He told us we have to disagree without being disagreeable,” said Merritt. “Leaders have to understand what others are saying but not put them down. They must say here’s a better solution.”
Participants were treated to a visit to the Olympic Training Center for canoes, kayaks, swimming and fitness. There they had to organize canoe teams to demonstrate they understood the common vision principle of leadership.
“By Thursday we enjoyed everything but we were tired,” said Merritt. “We had to work on our speeches. I stayed up until 1 that night to get prepared for the congressional debates. Next day we set up a congress and each speech could be three to four minutes. We disagreed in a good way.”
Merritt advanced to the second round in the debates that ran a total of five hours that day. He ultimately advanced to the finals and was in the top 12 but did not finish in the top four. Scholarships awarded for the top for debaters ranged from $250 for fourth to $1,000 for first place. Scholarships in the amount of $2,500 were awarded to the top persuasive paper and speaker.
Program participants also helped with an OCU Habitat for Humanity house as part of character development.
“They told us to give something of yourself,” said Merritt. “Character is something to work on. You have to want it to have it. You have to have character to inspire others. “
He indicated that one of the most moving parts of the program for him was a lecture from University of Oklahoma Professor Rufus Fears. He told the participants how in 1783 America faced a $7 million debt crisis, the country was polarized by its regional differences and the founding fathers had to figure out government structure and taxation.
Fears told the group it took George Washington and the group two months to deal with national debt, figure out the government’s structure and drafted the Bill of Rights.
“He (Fears) said you can’t even get Congress to agree on the first item on the agenda to speak on first,” said Merritt. “He said that patriotism was what made it possible. Leaders then looked to the future not the present. He told us we must pick up the responsibilities of leadership and do what we can for this country in the future.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.