Lessons on leadership: Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner shares lessons for his time in public service and beyond

Published 4:55 pm Thursday, November 18, 2021

Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner has spent the majority of his adult life dedicated to public service.

He has served over 40 years both in his current position and as the city manager from 1981 to 2005.

Earlier this month, Burtner announced that he would not seek reelection in 2022.
The four-term mayor will cast a long shadow on his successor and, most notably, will take decades of wisdom about leadership with him when he exits city hall next December.

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Before leaving his legacy to history, Burtner has much to share about the subject, and he did during a recent interview with the Sun.
His first lessons came during his formative years growing up in Augusta County, Virginia.

Lessons from His Father

Burtner is not the first member of his immediate family to run for and win public office.
His father, Edward C. Burtner, was a two-term member of the county’s board of supervisors, a local legislative body akin to the fiscal courts of Kentucky.

He did so while also operating the family farm, which conflicted with his political duties.
“He knew that not much work was going to get done on the farm when he had to go to afternoon, evening meetings, daylong meetings, and so forth,” Burtner said.

The elder Burtner still heeded the call of civic duty.

“It was important for him to sacrifice the time he spent on the farm to serve the public,” Burtner said.

Life as an elected official requires sacrifice, and, like his father, Burtner said he has sacrificed spending time with his own family due to his mayoral commitments.

Lessons from the Marines

Burtner said that his first leadership position came during his time in the United States Marine Corp.
He enlisted in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, at the age of 17 and reported to basic training in South Carolina shortly after his high school graduation.

By Burtner’s 19th birthday, he was a sergeant.
“I think that many of the lessons that I learned started right there,” he said.

One that has stayed with him came from a saying about the chow line.

“The expression is that sergeants eat last,” Burtner said. “The whole notion about that is you make sure the people that you are responsible for supervising, that their needs are met first.”

Marines also instilled in Burtner the notion that one cannot expect others to do something if they are unwilling to do it themselves.
It also taught him another valuable lesson when he was a private stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

He and his unit were assigned a complex task involving a junker of an armored vehicle by a stern sergeant.

“We had several of these track vehicles that were down and needed repair. He lined everybody up in front of the armored vehicles and said that on Monday morning at 7 o’clock that all those vehicles best be running,” Burtner said.

The unit was puzzled about how to fix the vehicles, but they completed their task by the assigned time.
In the process, they learned a lesson about accountability and a primary tenant of leadership.

“You can’t function if you aren’t ready to go and everything is not in place,” Burtner said. “Leadership is about being willing and prepared to get your hands dirty and doing the work.”

Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Burtner is a fixture at community events and believes it is essential for a public figure to be one.

“It’s important for someone who is going to represent the community and lead the community to be a part of the community,” he said

Being out and about in Winchester helped him during his first campaign for mayor.

“I promised myself that I was going to walk every street in Winchester myself and knock on every door,” Burtner said.

The experience was challenging, but it gave him a chance to take the pulse of what the public thought the city needed most.

“I was surprised at the number of people that said what Winchester needed was a dialysis center,” Burtner said.

Bringing a dialysis center to the area ended up being one of his first successful projects as mayor.

Learning from History

If one wants to impact their community positively, they must study those that came before them.

So what leaders from history does Burtner admire?

“I would have to say Abraham Lincoln, very definitely Theodore Roosevelt and I’m a huge admirer of John McCain,” he said.

What about them stands out?

“They were all, in different times and different places, confronted with some extraordinary and extreme circumstances,” Burtner said. “They were able to make the very best and provide outstanding leadership in making some very difficult decisions.”

A man of faith, Burtner also admires the leadership of Jesus Christ.

“Honestly, as a historic figure, Jesus Christ is a person, who if you look at what he said–he was the son of man and the son of God–the things he did and the way he went about doing them that he was a person of enormous strength,” Burtner said.

The mayor said he also values the courage displayed by those men. Such as when Christ went through with his crucifixion even when he knew all that was to come. And McCain, who refused early release from a brutal prisoner of war camp because several of his fellow prisoners outranked him.