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Ulmer: Real leaders are unsung heroes doing honest work

Ulmer: Real leaders are unsung heroes doing honest work


I remember Sen. Quentin Burdick stopping by a crew of ditch diggers during one of his campaign tours. He walked over to the men and said something like "It’s nice to finally someone doing honest work." Rumor has it that politicians are not known for their honest work.

I’ve also heard of a road construction crew that radioed their dispatcher that they had forgotten their shovels, to which the dispatcher responded, "Well you’ll just have to find something else to lean on today."

Since I retired seven years ago, I’ve spent more time behind a shovel than the social engineering they used to pay me to get engaged in. The major difference in the work is that at the end of a day of carpentry I can see the results of my efforts whereas my career engaged me in things that took a long time and effort with the understanding that I may never see the results.

Overall my engagement in social engineering involved getting the right people together. People more interested in building a better future as opposed to those more interested in tearing government apart rather than work within it.

As a former politician/lobbyist I need to tell you that there’s a difference between being led and leading. Politicians who worry about reelection are led; those who are interested in making things better lead.

Over the years I found the key to leading involved using my two ears more than my one mouth, and as both my loyal readers know, I have also been known to violate my own rules, but I digress.

Good politicians/leaders spend more time listening than talking and a huge part of that listening involves hearing more than they ever wanted to know about any given public issue. Once they understand the issue leaders have to decide whether their decision will benefit just a few or their whole community.

Any given public issue usually involves multiple interests along with strong feelings/views/facts/opinions/effects that can become volatile and boil over. I’ve sat in many hearings where the opposing sides were not only hostile, but worse yet each side had points worth considering.

During my 22 years in elected office I rarely worried about my reelection. Being one of the deciders, I tried to weigh each issue on whether it would meet a greater community or someone’s personal need. Many times my choices placed me in the minority of the crowd in front of me. There’s nothing easy about public service.

For a brief moment I was elevated to mayor because the real mayor, Ken Lamont, got sick. I got through the first meeting OK but during my second meeting of holding the highest political title I’ve ever achieved 300 voters handed in petitions recalling me, the mayor, and Commissioner Sandy Tabor.

The petitioners decided that they didn’t like how we were handling the BNSF diesel spill settlement. Among other things we were accused of tearing down buildings in order to turn the entire downtown into a parking lot.

Fortunately the real mayor came back and we were successful in maintaining our seats on the commission. I have to say here that one other important sign of a true leader is someone who's not interested in taking credit for their successes. It takes a village of similar minded folks that are more interested in the future than the present, folks willing to engage in the fray with the understanding that everyone plays a part in building a better future. Real leaders are usually unsung heroes doing honest work. By the way, wear a mask. 

Dan Ulmer is a parent, grandparent, as well as a retired teacher, counselor, politician, lobbyist, public employee, nonprofit executive and opinionated citizen who believes that we need to do what we can to leave the world better off than we found it.


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