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Reflections From the Rotary Club

By David Unmacht

David Unmacht, Executive Director of the League of Minnesota Cities

In late September, I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Prior Lake. My friend Jack Haugen, long-time Rotary club member and former Prior Lake mayor (2002- 2010), asked me to address the club on “any topic I choose.” A Rotary speech is 20 minutes tops, and this open invitation carried a level of opportunity, intrigue, and pressure. After much consideration, I chose reflection as my topic with two distinct components to my remarks.

The City of Prior Lake and the Rotary club are not strangers to me. I served on the staff in Prior Lake for seven years and was the city manager from 1987 to 1992.

During this time, I was an active member of the Rotary club. To this day, I have fond memories of my experiences and service in the community. Thanks to friends, and Mayor Kirt Briggs and City Manager Jason Wedel, I am kept abreast of the city’s continuing great work.

Reflecting on my experiences over the years, I have honed my message to four themes: relationships, trust, health and wellness, and time.

Besides Jack, only two current members of the club remain 30 years later, and names and faces of city leaders have changed many times. Prior Lake has grown from a population of 9,000 to more than 26,000, and few of the 45-plus Rotarians were familiar with the Prior Lake I knew.

Stories and anecdotes of Prior Lake in the 1980s and 1990s opened my remarks. It was great fun to reflect and connect the past to the present. The issues city and community leaders are faced with change and evolve. However, there is a link and foundation established through history.

I was full of pride and appreciation making a connection and knowing that the work of my generation is instrumental to the success of the current generation of leaders.

In addition to reflecting on my time in Prior Lake, my second goal was to leave the group with something of value from my work in public service. Knocking on the door of 40 years in local government with distinct roles (city, county, private sector, and association) produces a lot of experience to consider.

I found a connection in the work I do mentoring future leaders. The League’s work to engage and invest in the next generation of leaders is strong and I am deeply invested in this work.

I am routinely asked questions: What do you recommend I focus on? What lessons can you share about your career? And given all you have done, what have you found to be most important?

Reflecting on my experiences over the years, I have honed my message to four themes: relationships, trust, health and wellness, and time.

As I speak about my career, the relationships I have developed, the trust I work on every day, the importance of health and wellness, and how I spend my time are the essence of my values. The ability to identify these themes and talk about them publicly does not happen overnight. However, as I shared with the Rotarians, these four points connect the dots to everything else I do.

To students I mentor, I share observations from the school of hard knocks — recognizing both the successes I am proud of and the failures I’d just as soon forget.

Public service involves programs, policy, process, politics, and people. Yet more than anything — and this has always been one of my highest priorities — public service is a people business. The relationships you have with your elected officials, staff, colleagues, and community are a leading indicator of your success. Treat everyone — no matter their standing or role — equally. It’s not always easy, but it is right and rewarding.

I didn’t coin this phrase, but I have repeated it countless times to my councils and boards: “I work to earn your trust day in and day out; it is hard to keep, easy to lose.”

Being self-aware about the importance of trust is the essential ingredient to relationships and ensures its ongoing importance. To maintain a high level of trust requires a nonstop commitment to honesty, communication, and ownership in your actions.

In my lifetime, I have not been able to compartmentalize my life and work. If I am not taking care of myself, it shows. If I am not using my time effectively, it shows. Taking care of myself both mentally and physically is the key to my optimal performance. After decades, I still work hard at this every day. And leading by example is a priority I hold near and dear to my values.

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