Meet a Member: ‘Effective Leaders are Willing to Bend’

E-newsletter Issue #70 | May 26, 2011

Oregon Rep. Sara Gelser took office in 2005, driven by a strong desire to help others. 

“I enjoy the challenges that come with public service, and especially enjoy the chance to help others,” said Gelser. “Serving in the legislature gives me the opportunity to meet many different people and seek broad-based solutions to the challenges that cut across policy areas.”

Gelser has succeeded in her desire to work across political lines and to help those in need, and as a result has emerged as one of Oregon’s most promising leaders. Now serving as assistant majority leader, Gelser embodies the image of a public servant as she pushes for legislation that protects underprivileged, abused and often-neglected populations.  

One of Gelser’s proudest accomplishments was the passage of her bill protecting abused children and guaranteeing them medical attention and care. Since 2008, Karly’s law, named in honor of a 3-year-old girl who died after abuse suspicions were not investigated, is credited with helping thousands of children find protection from, and medical treatment for, abuse.

Gelser’s record of service to those in need stretches back to her middle school years when the opportunity to meet AIDS patients left a profound impression on her.

“Several peers and I became concerned about the issue,” said Gelser, “and talked to some adult mentors who helped us start an organization called ‘Teens for the Prevention of AIDS.’  Our group disseminated information to students about safe sex practices and worked to break down stereotypes about people with AIDS.”

The leadership potential Gelser showed at a young age has continued to grow and guide her service. Oregon legislative leaders nominated Gelser for the prestigious Toll Fellows Program in 2008, where she was again singled out by her peers and selected as the class representative. One key to Gelser’s success is her unwavering acknowledgement that she is human in an age when so many elected officials let the power of their office corrupt them.

“Effective leaders know who they are and what they believe,” said Gelser. “They work hard to achieve their objectives, with an ear open to others.  When they make mistakes—like we all do—they apologize for them and seek to make them right.  They accept that sometimes they will fail and when they do, they congratulate those who have prevailed on an issue.”

Another key to Gelser’s service is her passion for the job that gives her a tireless energy to do good work. 

“I am passionate about issues that I care about,” she said, “and that is expressed in my intensity during a debate. However, leading up to taking positions I am very methodical. I spend hours on research and actively seek out potential sources of opposition.  I think looking for the weaknesses in a proposed policy is the best way to strengthen a bill.”

Gelser also maintains an ability to keep her eyes on the goal without an overwhelming need to get credit or gain recognition.  

“Effective leaders are willing to bend, to allow others to take credit, and to recognize that no decision is ever final,” said Gelser. “In other words, an effective leader always has to be willing to change course when needed.”

To her, the ends are far more important than whether she gets praised for her work.

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