Back to the Mar-Apr 2023 issue

Reflections on Four Themes Over 40 Years of Public Service

By David Unmacht

David Unmacht

On Dec. 8, 2022, I announced my plan to retire in May 2023 from the League of Minnesota Cities executive director position. In remarks at the League’s recent Elected Leaders Institute (ELI) in Mankato, I spoke publicly for the first time about my plans. By the time you read this column, I will be 64 years old and one month shy of 40 total years of service. I have said to many in explaining my decision, 64/40 is a good ratio to start a new chapter in the book of my life.

Naturally, this decision drives me to imagine what was and what will be. Thus, a perfect segue for my final two magazine columns. This column will focus on a few themes from my life’s experience, and my final column (in the May/June issue) will focus on the future and what’s to come.

The ELI Foundational Program is the League’s best, large group forum to coach and mentor city leaders just entering the realm of public service — a first formal training for newly-elected officials. Many attendees have been advised, “You must attend this training, it’s the best way to learn about city government,” so they arrive with high expectations, an empty notebook waiting to be filled, and an eagerness to learn.

I chose my ELI remarks to correlate with my own decision and plans. I wondered, in the few short minutes allotted to speak, what I could share from four decades with officials who barely have four weeks of experience. I chose to cover the following four themes: 

1. Public service is an honor. An elected office (city council or mayor) is a role on loan from the public. It’s vitally important to respect the position and role, remembering that many have come before and many will come after. Cherish the opportunity to make a difference in your city and community; and know it is a humbling privilege to serve. It’s proven time and again, the most satisfying experiences are those that give the maximum effort and seek little in return. Treating public office as an honor provides grounding for you at the outset of your term. 

2. Build up; don’t tear down. A true leader seeks to learn from the past, lead with courage, and build for the future. “It’s perfectly fine to disagree with past decisions; yet it is unwise to publicly critique and point fingers toward the past. I often say to my colleagues, it’s not what you do, but how you do it that matters the most.” Treating everyone with respect and dignity is a responsible way to build a base for progress. The best leaders are remembered not for what they have torn down, but for what they left standing in its place. 

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Dr. Richard Carlson’s words in his highly popular book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, ring true today: “Often we allow ourselves to get all worked up about things that upon closer examination aren’t really that big of a deal. We focus on little problems and things and blow them way out of proportion.”

There are so many issues, priorities, and distractions in public office. Finding balance, perspective, and patience is vital to your long-term success. I sweated a lot of small stuff over the years, and wish I could have back every minute spent on those worries! 

4. Health matters most of all. The pandemic was a wake-up call. It amplified a priority to be responsible for your own physical and mental health. But there is an added responsibility during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. A voting certificate now requires you to take greater ownership for the health and welfare of your city organization. Paying attention to your own mental and physical health and to that of your organization is the most important thing you can do as a leader.

There is no simple route to success for your elected service, but you can help to chart a course that steers you in the right direction. I’ve learned not to let destiny, alone, define outcomes. Instead, recognize the humility of your service, build up and don’t tear down, don’t sweat the small stuff, and take care of yourself. These four themes will contribute toward a smoother and more successful ride.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dunmacht@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.