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Leadership: The Currency of the Community & Business with the Honorable Merl Code

Posted by: Chamber Investor on Wednesday, May 21, 2014
This recap from the Chamber's April 2014 Friday Forum was submitted by Chris Manley,  Managing Partner of Engenius and Executive Director of ReWiGo Ministries. Foundations Well before his esteemed legal career that led him to become the first African American Municipal Court Judge in Greenville and first African American president of the Student Bar Association at the University of South Carolina, Merl Code was an athlete. Not just any athlete - he played both baseball and football in high school, went on to play four years of college football at North Carolina A&T University, and turned pro in 1970, where in his rookie season his team (the Montreal Alouettes, part of the Canadian Football League) won the Grey Cup Championship, Canada’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. Code began learning about leadership from an early age in the footsteps of his father, a school principal in Oconee County. Growing up he was the captain of every team he was ever on, was the quarterback, and was the shortstop. He knew how to lead a team. Then upon becoming pro, the captain role was out of his reach. Code had to learn to lead from the middle of the pack. To, in his words, “Support the captain.” Leadership to Code is not in title, but in how they act. “Leaders are chosen. They should inspire others… have courage, ethics, and set the example.” Following seven seasons in professional football, Code returned to his home state to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law, where he was elected the Student Bar Association President. How, you might ask? “By just having fun,” says Code. “They knew me, they knew I had the courage to deal with faculty.” It was about the respect his classmates had for him. That respect continued well past the legal realm as a business leader and board member of companies, nonprofits, and a school that he may hold the world record as shortest tenured President. Many ‘firsts’ have been experienced by Code throughout his life, as he became the first African American Chairman of the United Way, then the first African American Chairman of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. On Relationships “I know Tiger Woods, Beyonce, Bill Gates, and Michael Jordan,” said Code. “The problem is, they don’t know me. It’s not enough to know people - they have to know you.” Relationships have been the key to success for Code. Unlike the traditional wisdom of it being about who you know, he says, “It’s not who you know… it’s who knows you. Leadership builds bridges for today and tomorrow. Leadership builds bridges for those you know and those you don’t.” On Business and Community “A strong community supports business,” said Code. “A strong business community supports the community.” Leadership is the currency that drives business and community - and the two are interconnected. “Success can be defined as the ever increasing opportunity to benefit your community. You make your home nice. Let’s clean it up to make our community our home.” On Becoming a Leader Code identifies leadership as inspirational, bold, and humble. Each is important. Inspirational “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” It was 1987. Max Heller thought bold, thought creative, and saw beyond his current eyesight. He thought as if money were no issue. Without that inspirational vision, “there would be no Peace Center, no ball park, no Falls Park, no Children’s Museum…” Bold The right decisions have to be made for the right reasons. Case in point: Falls Park. “If leadership had been listening to the clamoring of people, we’d have no Falls Park,” said Code. “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” Humble Take time to boost the self esteem of others. Uplift other folks and open doors. “Be strong, not rude. Be kind, not weak. Be proud, not arrogant.” Code urges us to be a champion for someone. “Be somebody’s hero. Help somebody else. Let somebody else’s dream come true.” On Inclusiveness The most important thing Greenville needs to focus on in the present according to Code is inclusiveness. He recalled a time that he was on twenty-three boards at the same time and the only African American one. Nobody was opening doors to other African American leaders. He challenged, “If we want to be a city of the future we must be inclusive. We cannot leave talent behind.” We must build trust and extend a hand. His last challenge was this: “If the goal is raising per capita income, it can’t just be the top. You’ve got to raise the bottom and middle. We must have a viable diverse community. A strong minority business community has strong families. Strong families build strong children. Open some doors!” Based on his challenge to our community and more, there is little doubt Merl Code practices what he preaches and has lived the life of a leader. The Greenville Chamber's Friday Forum Series is designed to help business professionals connect, learn and grow with networking opportunities and educational presentations. The next Friday Forum on May 30th will feature Dick Wilkerson. Details at


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