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Bottom-up leadership is the best path to the top

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Gov. Gary Herbert talks about his time in office during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Gary R. Herbert’s nearly 12 years as Utah’s 17th governor ended in January upon the swearing in of his former Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Herbert’s time at the top of the state provided many leadership lessons for him and for future leaders to ponder, and the one that struck me while talking with him during a recent podcast interview is that if you want to lead a group to the top, starting at the bottom is the best strategy. 

Herbert is no stranger to leadership. “It has been an exciting 30 years, six months and five days for me as an elected official, but who’s counting?” he told me. “The last 12 years as the governor of the great state of Utah has been a privilege.”

Herbert reflected, “When I first ran for office, as a county commissioner, I came away from that recognizing how significantly important it is to build bottom up, not top down. When I ran for governor, in fact, that was my slogan, ‘Bottom up, not top down.’ Others around the country are joining that sentiment with an appreciation that local government, local control, close to the people provides the best policy outcomes.” 

President Ronald Reagan addressed the problem of top-down national government when he famously said, “Government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” 

Failing to follow the founders’ vision of balanced federalism has created myriad problems in America. Herbert used the old quip, “We have confronted the enemy and the enemy is us,” to frame his view of the country looking in all the wrong places for quick fixes to complex problems. 

“I think we as a society, and the citizens of this great country, have, over time, been conditioned to look for solutions to everything that ails our society from the top, and think that somehow the solutions come out of Washington, D.C.

“Frankly, that’s just backward,” he continued. “The solutions come from us as individuals and families. Most problems can be addressed at our local levels with our city mayors, county councils, county commissioners and certainly our state legislators and governors.

“I’ve really come to believe that the greatest hope that we have for America’s future is not in Washington, D.C., but the greatest hope is from the states themselves, sovereign states, 50 different laboratories of democracy, all going through experiments and pilot programs. And we learn from those that are succeeding, and we learn from those that fail. We make adjustments and modifications and improve policy and constantly improve outcomes. So, the best hope going forward for America is the states. And that’s what we should concentrate our time on. I think it’s a false hope to think that the federal government will solve our problems.”

We discussed what many refer to as the “Utah model,” or the state’s unique approach to many of the challenging issues of the day. Herbert was quick to tout the people of Utah: “When you think about the fact that this state leads the nation in volunteerism … we lead the nation by Gallup polling of being the most optimistic people, the most joyful people, the most happy people, and we’re in the top five of the healthiest people — we live in a great state, beautiful scenery, people caring about people and helping neighbors they know and even those they don’t know.”

With great passion and a palpable love of the state of Utah and its people, Herbert continued, “So we are a good example for the rest of the country. And one of the things I was really kind of pleased about was that I would constantly get calls from other governors saying, ‘How do you guys do this in Utah? And what’s your secret?’ Well, the secret is we have really, really good people. The culture that we’ve developed here is helping us to be a kind of beacon on the hill for the rest of the country. I am grateful for the people who made it happen.”

The former governor brought our conversation full circle as he concluded, “My hope for the future is that we look more to the states for solution to problems, and not so much to the federal government. We can find ways to work together, again, with a bottom-up approach. That starts with our families. Making sure our families are intact, our families, in whatever form, are healthy. We need our children to be taught good principles of freedom and liberty, and the proper role of government and the opportunity we have to ... be the best we can be in a free society. Those are things that need to be taught and learned and practiced.”

Bottom up really is the best path to the top — for our communities, our state and our nation.