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In 1981, the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce appointed a Steering Committee to investigate the possibility of starting a community leadership program. James C. Lee, Jr., then President of the Chamber, named Neal Berte to chair the group. After researching efforts in other parts of the country, and considering the needs of Birmingham, it was determined that the entity now known as Leadership Birmingham should be formed, and would operate as an independent, non-profit organization.

In November 1982, Leadership Birmingham was incorporated with William J. Rushton, III as its first Chairman. A Board of Trustees was elected and Sheila Blair was hired as the first Executive Director. Initial funding came from major corporations and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. The first class was selected in 1983. Drayton Nabers followed Billy Rushton as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and was succeeded by Mike Warren in December 2003. Including the class of 2011, there have been 1,266 graduates of Leadership Birmingham.