The story of the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln’s chequered life is almost a memory verse to several motivational speakers who have virtually turned him to the poster boy of inspiration and consistent comebacks from several setbacks. Raised in a log cabin and home-schooled by his mother, Lincoln’s eventual journey to the highest office in the United States of America reveals a plethora of experiences at some times sad and at other times exhilarating. But that Odyssey is not the thrust of this discourse. Regarded as one of the most respected Presidents America has ever had, Lincoln is credited with several achievements ranging from the unification of America, the fight for which he commanded, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation which allowed black soldiers to fight for the Union and began the process of freedom for America’s slaves to the Thirteenth Amendment which formally ended slavery in America.
Lincoln remains an icon of strong character, leadership, and honesty; traits which succeeding presidents and leaders worldwide have tried to emulate.
We turn the hands of the clock to shortly after his election as President of United States of America. I recently read a story about him that, even if not a true story, purveys life lessons that every leader needs to learn. I have taken the liberty of reconstructing the story.
There was an eerie silence in the hallowed chambers filled with Congressmen and women, the Press and several important dignitaries who had come to grace the occasion. The newly elected President would be presenting his Inaugural Address. The audience in the room was a pot-pourri of feelings and sentiments towards the new President. Some loved him passionately and others loathed him no less passionately. As Lincoln was ushered in and made for the podium, one man stood up. He was a rich aristocrat and he looked nowhere near conciliatory. Before the new President could get out a word, the rich aristocrat practically shouted to the hearing of all,
“Mr. Lincoln, I just thought I should remind you that your father used to make shoes for my family” Appreciably loud voices erupted in laughter as if there was a pre-arranged tryst to embarrass Lincoln.
But Lincoln was totally unperturbed. With an unruffled look that seemed to imply, “I have seen worse things. You don’t even know what I went through to get here”, he beamed a smile. Looking at the man directly in the eyes, Lincoln said, “Sir, I know that my father used to make shoes for your family, as he did for several families represented here, because he made shoes the way nobody else did or can. My father was a creator. His shoes were not just shoes, he poured his whole soul into them. In the presence of everyone here, I would like to ask you sir, have you or any member of your family any complaint with any of the shoes that my father made? Because I know how to make shoes myself. If you have any complaint I can make you another pair of shoes. But as far as I know, nobody has ever complained about my father’s shoes. He was a genius, a great creator and I am so proud of my father”.
The silence that descended on that room was so thick you could practically put a voice to it! The drop of a pin would have been akin to a loud din. But that was only to be for a few moments. As if roused from a deep sleep by the sound of an erupting volcano, the entire audience was on its feet in thunderous applause, including the man who had caused the entire furore in the first place.
As the applause settled after what seemed to be several minutes, people could be heard whispering to themselves, “What kind of man is this?”
The spirit of excellence is first about who you are before it is what you do. Irrespective of your social status or station in life, when excellence becomes a culture, there is no end to greatness.
According to Martin Luther King Jr. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Abraham Lincoln was able to boast of his Dad’s commitment to his shoemaking in a way almost akin to the way God is committed to His creation. According to scriptures, anyone who applies diligence in his work will stand before kings and not before ordinary men. If in doubt, ask Joseph in Egypt. Ask Daniel and his Hebrew friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Babylon. The king of Babylon called it “the spirit of the gods” while referring to Daniel, and so did Pharaoh in Egypt about Joseph after the latter had interpreted his dreams. This underscores the divine dimension of excellence. Another part of the Holy Bible exhorts us to do with all our might whatever our hands find to do.
When your life is driven by the quest for excellence, it becomes difficult for anyone to hurt you or put you down without your consent. Excellence is not about what happens to you. Excellence or a deficit of it is demonstrated by your response to it.
Life is full of people whose only pastime is seeking to hurt or put others down. It’s the way they get their kicks in life. What they do not understand however is that for you to successfully pull anyone down, you must go lower than him!
To live a life of excellence, you must make up your mind that no one has a right to determine your worth apart from you and your Maker.
Excellence is so fixated on desired outcomes that it simply considers anything that will not lead to those outcomes as expensive distractions.
If we all learnt to do every job we have in hand as if it’s the last we would ever do or as if the measure of our entire life will determined by it, there is no end to what we could become.
To anyone who knows the story of Abraham Lincoln and all the failures, losses and heartbreaks he went experienced before he finally arrived at being elected president of the USA, the story narrated above and his response should not come as a surprise.
The word excellence implies jutting out beyond the ordinary and the mundane. It is not developed by experiences. It is only manifested in them.
Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!