ORLANDO, Fla.—Leadership is measured in actions, not words. That’s a lesson NRECA CEO Jim Matheson learned at an early age, and he now finds electric co-ops embodying it every day to deliver a better quality of life to their consumer-members.

“My mom is 89 years old, and I still hear it from her: What are you going to do to make your community a better place?” Matheson told thousands of co-op leaders March 11 at NRECA’s 77th Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida.

“Cooperative leadership is community leadership,” he said, “and we use it to get things done.”

That core service to community makes electric co-ops a force to be reckoned with, he noted, not only back home but on the national stage.

“In a political environment that is more polarized, and where people can’t seem to get things done, it’s our focus on community that gives us a different, more credible voice, than anyone else in Washington,” said Matheson, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2015.

“We’ve built a rare kind of credibility that’s grounded in the cooperative principle of concern for community” through services to consumer-members far beyond power lines, he said. That includes job training, continuing education, community development, broadband internet access, health fairs, scholarships, veterans programs, Youth Tour, food banks and Operation Round-Up.

“Electric co-ops are in the quality-of-life business,” he said. “We take that responsibility seriously and that’s what makes us different. We need that special kind of leadership now more than ever.”

As NRECA works to make sure federal policymakers understand electric co-ops’ priorities and their standing in the communities they serve, Matheson urged co-op leaders to invite elected officials to visit their co-op and attend the NRECA Legislative Conference, April 28-30 on Capitol Hill.

“These are important opportunities to share your experiences and use your voice to promote what co-ops do and why we do it,” he said.

The significant influx of new members of Congress provides an opportunity for co-ops to educate their state’s policy leaders. “You don’t have to look very hard in Washington to find someone who has never set foot in co-op service territory,” he said. “You don’t have to ask many people before you find someone who doesn’t know what an electric co-op is or what it does. I want them to understand the special kind of leadership we provide in the communities we serve.”

Matheson also encouraged co-op officials to ponder: “How are you sowing the seeds for the future leadership of your electric co-op?”

“When people learn who we are and what we do, they’re inspired. Use that inspiration to seek out the next generation of leaders—not just at the co-op, but in your community and across our country.”

The goal of the cooperative model “is to reflect the whole community’s interest in a better quality of life,” he added.

“It’s not just looking at one promising person and pinning our hopes to them. It’s about preparing everyone in the community to participate in the life of their co-op,” said Matheson.

“Who can stand on our shoulders, and how will we help them to do it?”

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