COMMENTARY: A friend’s death provides some important lessons in leadership, entrepreneurship

Dan SpeerBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

When you think of an entrepreneur, what picture comes to mind? Most would probably say a younger person, most likely a male, focused on a tech-based business.

We learned years ago that stereotype was not always the case. In fact, some of the earliest entrepreneurs we met during career one at the University of Tennessee were not stereotypical. They were what we called “early adopters and adapters,” and many of them were local government officials. Yes, that’s right – public servants.

One of those entrepreneurs from way back was Dan Speer, long-time Mayor of Pulaski, a small city on the Tennessee-Alabama border near Huntsville. We worked with Dan on several different telecommunications initiatives starting in the early to mid-1990s. It was all about opening-up economic development opportunities for individuals, industries and communities through what were then emerging technologies like the Internet and ISDN. Many were skeptical, but people like Dan persisted. That’s the nature of good entrepreneurs.

Dan was a pioneer and a driver. As Mayor of the city where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865, he worked tireless to help the city overcome the stigma and fight efforts by the Klan during his tenure as Mayor to regain its foothold in the Middle Tennessee community. As a result, Pulaski was named an All-American City by the National Civic League. and Dan was recognized as small town “Mayor of the Year” by the National Association of Towns and Townships.

Later, he became Executive Director of the Pulaski/Giles County Economic Development Commission, working to build bridges to Huntsville, Nashville and other technology centers.

Entrepreneurs persevere in spite of overwhelming challenges, so Dan characteristically put-up an amazing battle when he was diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago. He wore a hat with a simple message – “Cancer Sucks” (see thumbnail photo), and he and his wife Brenda chronicled their journey on the Caring Bridge site. Dan also continued in his economic development role until just a few days ago.

He died last Thursday at the young age of 67. Dan was my friend, so this article is in some respects therapeutic for me. But, more important, I think his legacy is a life that is a role model for leadership and entrepreneurship. It starts with vision. You don’t have to be in the private sector to be an entrepreneur; you can embrace opportunity in the public sector, too. It’s your entrepreneurial skills and tireless pursuit of your passions that determine so much of your success. You can’t be afraid to fail, but you have to believe you can overcome all odds. And, you fight whatever challenges you face and whatever skeptics you encounter until proven wrong.

That’s what Dan did, and Pulaski and Middle Tennessee are better places as a result.

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