Since it was founded in 1978, Leadership Charlotte has cultivated over 1,800 community leaders. Schley Lyons, then chair of the UNCC Political Science Department, envisioned a leadership program that extended beyond the tight ring of downtown business leaders that formed the core of leadership in most cities. Leaders were redefined as not only business owners and elected officials, but as heads of volunteer organizations, community service agencies and volunteer city-county boards and neighborhood associations.

The first two years of the program were funded under the Title I Higher Education Act of 1965. Class 1 and Class 2 were conducted under the grant which was matched by UNCC. Class 1 meeting space was provided by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce at the invitation of Bill Veeder, the president of the Chamber and former City Manager. Class 2 met at UNCC. Before the second class ended, the members of the first class determined the program should continue when the grant expired.

Class 3, directed by Schley Lyons, accepted corporate sponsors. Each corporate sponsor was entitled to select one participant for the program. A Leadership Charlotte alumni committee selected the remaining participants, continuing the tradition that selected Class 2. When Schley Lyons was promoted to associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Board of Directors contacted Jim Clay, director of The Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. The program remained there, nurtured by Bill McCoy through 1990.

In 1984, the first Schley Lyons Circle of Excellence Award was established to recognize a graduate who exemplifies both professional and personal involvement in the community and civic events, and support for diversity. The Horizon Award, Lifetime Achievement Award, Newcomer of the Year Award and Community Service Award are also presented at the annual awards event.

In 1987, Leadership Charlotte launched Youth Leadership Charlotte for rising sophomores and juniors in Charlotte high schools. There are 209 alumni of this program. In 1991, Senior Leadership Charlotte was launched in conjunction with United Way. Both programs emphasized volunteerism. These programs were suspended in 1993 until a time when they could be supported without draining financial and administrative resources of Leadership Charlotte.

In 1991, Leadership Charlotte attained total self-sufficiency and autonomy from the state regulations that governed the organization imposed by its association with The Urban Institute. In 1991 community owned PBS station WTVI granted pro bono office space to Leadership Charlotte.

Bill McCoy turned over the position of Executive Director to Kathy Shinkle, who was followed by Fay Grasty, the first full time director. They both worked tirelessly during this key transition period. Fay turned responsibilities over to Sally Billington, who was followed by Heidi Campbell-Robinson. In 2001, Dee Dee Murphy was hired as Executive Director.

In Spring 2002, the Board approved a new venture “An Alliance for Leadership Excellence” with the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Leadership Charlotte relocated to the McColl School in July of that year to take advantage of the synergy and resources of the school’s strategic curriculum where leadership is the core value for all programs.

In 2007, the Board of Directors appointed Elizabeth McKee to the position of Executive Director.