Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is simply to be quiet, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Friday at Montana State University.

The governor - who has at times been accused by opponents of lecturing and not listening - gave that advice during a discussion of leadership with a panel of four other successful MSU graduates. The event was part of the inaugural festivities leading up to the swearing in of MSU President Waded Cruzado.

Schweitzer said one of the hardest things he has to do as governor is to meet the families of Montana soldiers killed in war.

He said he "didn't think it was a good idea" to invade Iraq, and "I don't understand why we're in Afghanistan," but he doesn't talk about those concerns with grieving parents. Instead, Schweitzer said, he goes to the funerals, gives families his phone numbers and offers to help in any way he can.

The governor recalled one dad telling him how, three days after a black Suburban drove up with military officers bringing the devastating news of their son's death, the dad finally got himself out of the house. He rode for miles across the ranch in his pickup.

At one spot, there was his son, the dad told Schweitzer. "'He said, ‘Dad, don't worry about me, I lived my dreams; I just want my kids to be ranchers.'

"At times like that, a good leader says nothing," Schweitzer said. "He just listens."

Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction and the first American Indian elected to the position, said her undergraduate years at MSU made a huge difference in her life. Faculty members took her under their wing and encouraged her to apply for fellowships, which got her to Harvard and gave her confidence to take advantage of other opportunities.

"Doors opened to me because of public education, because of MSU," Juneau said.

She recalled once meeting President Barack Obama and his secretary of education and thinking, "This is not bad for a Browning High School graduate."

Duane Nellis, now University of Idaho president, grew up in Libby. He said coming to MSU was "transformative ... like turning on a light bulb." The faculty cared and encouraged him to go to graduate school.

Nellis said one of his biggest challenges as a leader today is communicating to the public how important the university is, at a time of state "disinvestment in higher education, at a time we're losing our competitiveness in the world."

His university has had a 23 percent cut in state funding in two years, and it's worse in California, Washington and Oregon, he said. State universities, Nellis said, are "critical to economic development and quality of life."

Kathleen Saylor said a turning point for her came in the middle of the worst time of her life. She was in charge of training employees at an Alabama factory supplying a new Mercedes-Benz plant. She wasn't used to the German managers' style -- constant criticism. Nothing she did was right, so she decided to quit.

But the next morning, Saylor said, she thought she should try to hang on, and it proved the right decision. She eventually rose to be the company's chief executive officer.

"Don't quit," Saylor said. "When it gets tough, don't run."

Moderator Kirk Miller, an MSU alum and Bozeman schools superintendent, asked each panelist about mentors.

Schweitzer recalled MSU soils science professor Jerry Nielsen, who always looked to the future and the "next mountain to climb."

"People won't follow people who are moaners and whiners and complainers," the governor said. "Jerry Neilsen -- his optimism changed my life."

The governor also told a story of being one of nine kids in his first-grade class - seven of whom were Finns. He went home and asked his mom about saunas. She explained the Finns were blue-eyed, too, but they have a different culture than his German-Irish family. That was his first lesson in diversity.

"Diversity is the wealth of life," Schweitzer said. It brings in new people with new ideas, he said, adding that he's proud to have more Native Americans in his administration than all 22 previous Montana governors put together.

"That's why I'm happy we're celebrating a woman like Waded Cruzado," Schweitzer said, "who doesn't look like my first-grade class."

 

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.