Developing Leadership: From the Life of Governor Olene Walker

Excerpts from a chapter about Governor Olene Walker in Developing Leadership: Learning from the Experiences of Women Governors

Developing leadership is a lifelong journey, one in which we grow sometimes incrementally and sometimes by leaps and bounds. Other people are an important part of that journey. Mentors, role models, and friends help shape our ideas and determine our actions. Learning from each other gives us the opportunity to shape what we become and to see more clearly how to refine our own capacity to contribute.

Today’s blog highlights insights from the life of Governor Olene Walker, Governor of the State of Utah from 2003-2005. Walker spearheaded many important initiatives including education programs, healthcare reform, workforce development, and tax reform. Using her strong academic background, she led Utah toward improvements in education and literacy throughout her decades of public service in a variety of roles.

Learning to Work Hard
Coming from a rural, hard-working background, Olene was instilled with a strong work ethic and a desire to help those in her community. As the second of five children, she was also taught the importance of family and the need to work together to accomplish the task at hand. She said:

We lived on a farm with dairy and beef cattle, and we also grew crops like tomatoes, potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa, grain, and corn. We really learned to work hard. I remember spending days thinning and topping beats, planting tomatoes, and digging up potatoes. My dad use to call the farm his “golf game” and we all learned to play.

It was a way of life, and Olene felt that it was important to teach her own children the necessity of hard work. She would bring them from Salt Lake to her mother’s farm to “give them the opportunity to experience farm life.” Many important lessons were taught while weeding, pruning, and harvesting that garden. The important thing was that they learned to work together and help others.

Avid Learner
At the age of fifty-one, Olene completed her Ph.D. She was a state legislator at the time. Two of her children and a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law graduated the same day.

Speaking of her childhood, Olene said:

It was just assumed that we would attend college. Both of my parents had gone on to college and to receive higher degrees, so we all just planned to go to college when we finished high school. The question was not if we were going, but where we were going.

Olene’s mother came from a family in which both of her parents only had eighth-grade educations, but she and her three sisters all studied and became teachers. This interest in learning was passed on to Olene who loves learning and has sought out a variety of opportunities to increase her understanding throughout her life. Olene, who took 13 years to be a full-time mother, says that women can accomplish a great deal if they understand that they may not be able to do everything at once, but that there are various stages in life. She was able to make time to raise her children, make time to pursue an education, and make time to become very involved in community service and politics.

Advice: Seek Out New Experiences
Throughout the past few decades, Olene has been asked to give advice to other women. She believes that women should take advantage of every opportunity they are given. Women must be willing to enter into new experiences, map out their goals, and pursue an education. She said, “While I didn’t actually need a Ph.D. to be a legislator, lieutenant governor, or governor, the fact that I have those degrees opened doors for me.” She encourages young women to get as much education as they can and get involved in their communities. She said,

If you have interest in being a leader at the local or state level, then volunteer to be on boards. Seek out opportunities to serve and have leadership experiences. Analyze what needs to be done in your community and come up with suggestions of how to accomplish things. Energize others to get involved.

Olene didn’t set out to be a leader, but she was committed to “get things done.” That commitment made her valuable and opened doors, sometimes unexpected, to contribute and make a difference. Her leadership qualities developed over time, through a rich mix of experiences at work, home, and in the community, all part of the process of a lifetime that prepared her to serve as Governor.

To read the full chapter about Olene written by Dr. Susan R. Madsen, click here.

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