It is said that Abraham Lincoln often slipped out of the White House on Wednesday evening to listen to the sermons of Dr. Phineas Gurley at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. He generally preferred to come and go unnoticed. So when Dr. Gurley knew the president was coming, he left his study door open.
On one of those occasions, the president slipped through a side door in the church and took a seat in the minister’s study, located just to the side of the sanctuary. There he propped the door open, just wide enough to hear Dr. Gurley.
During the walk home, an aide asked Mr. Lincoln his appraisal of the sermon. The president thoughtfully replied, “The content was excellent; he delivered with elegance; he obviously put work into the message.”
“Then you thought it was an excellent sermon?” questioned the aide.
“No,” Lincoln answered.
“But you said that the content was excellent. It was delivered with eloquence, and it showed how hard he worked,” the aide pressed.
“That’s true,” Lincoln said, “But Dr. Gurley forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great.”
Don’t strive to be great. Strive to do great.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t expect people to BE great. He expected them to DO something great – to take great action.
Although we won’t all be recognized by history as being great, we are all capable of striving for greatness in our actions. Greatness can lie in the small everyday actions we take. If a friend of colleague needs our attention, it is an act of greatness when we put what we are doing aside and listen with our full, undivided attention. The small, specific things we do can become a platform for greatness.
Most of the good of the world builds on the accumulated efforts of everyday people doing small things in a great way. A life should strive for greatness, as Mr. Lincoln seemed to know.
Great and Perfect Are Not the Same
You don’t have to do something perfectly for it to be great. Focus on what is most important about your action and ensure you do that well; the other trappings are not as important. Conversely, the pieces can be excellent, like the content and the delivery of Dr. Gurley’s sermon, and it can still fall short if what is essential is missing.
Five Keys to Taking Action Great
1. Be clear about what is essential: Understand what higher purpose your action serves.
2. Know what greatness looks like: Have a clear sense of what an excellent job looks like. Start with the end in mind.
3. Bring a serving heart: Ensure your action provides value, and is not simply self-serving.
4. Give it your all: Make a full effort, with your full attention.
5. Learn as you go: Be willing to make mistakes; treat them as learning opportunities.
What does striving for greatness mean to you? What do you do to make your actions great?
Thank you for this post, Jesse Lyn. I have been hearing similar threads again and again over the last couple of weeks about the need to “Give of your best”. It is good to be reminded that our best doesn’t have to be perfect. We bring to the table what we have and offer it as a gift of service.
Often it is only when we look back that we see the result of our actions. We may not know what great things we have actually done, but that shouldn’t stop us doing something. We shouldn’t be seeking our own greatness but the greatness of others. Live to serve and prosper others, and in return, we ourselves will prosper. However, we should continually check our heart motive in all things.
Thanks for the post. I needed to read it at the beginning of this week.
Thanks for your thoughtful and heartfelt comments. I wholeheartedly agree with you. When we equate doing something great with being perfect, we hold ourselves to an unattainable standard that depletes our energy. I think it is helpful to know the impact of our actions so we can continue to learn (from our successes as well as our mistakes). However, I agree with you that often we will never know the full impact – which is why it is so important to be clear about our purpose and as you put it so well, our “heart motive.” I’m so glad my post inspired you as you begin this week.
Thanks for this powerful challenge.
For me the challenge of greatness is making others great. It’s translating my own desires for the spotlight into opportunities to put others in the spotlight.
It helps me to realize that maximum impact isn’t simply about what I can do but about multiplying efforts by working through others.
Hi Dan, Your comment is inspiring. You reminded me of this great quote by Warren Bennis: “One can sing & dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers & dancers flourish.”
Jesse, your story about Abraham Lincoln is a great introduction into thoughts about greatness. For me, striving for greatness is about doing things with sincerity; making a contribution to something greater than I am and, if I do manage to do something great for somebody, resisting the temptation to boast about it. I’m still working on the great versus perfect thing. 🙂
Thanks for a thoughtful and encouraging post.
Hi Gwyn, Sincerity, making a contribution and not bragging are the ingredients of greatness. It’s inspiring to hear what you strive for. Thanks for sharing what great action looks like for you.
The short story powerfully underscores your point about the importance of action. What makes this post particularly valuable is that you’ve addressed perfection and added a way to thwart it: “learn as you go”. Thanks for the enjoyable post.
Hi Rick, Your positive feedback is more than just a compliment, which I greatly appreciate, but it also helps me know I’m on track. Being a new blogger, it was very helpful to hear specifically what was working so I would know what I should continue doing. Thank you for your gift.
Great “sophomore” post to follow up your introduction of this blog. I love the thought that greatness and perfection are not the same thing. I think you bring a fresh voice to the blogging world on leadership topics. It’s so nice to read some fresh content and perspective. Keep it coming our way.
Thanks so much for your support and encouragement as I find my “sea legs” in the blogging world. It’s one of my goals to provide fresh content and perspective. I’m glad that came across for you.
Thanks for this post – I read that quote and everything in me just stilled. what a powerful story.
So glad to hear that. Thank you, Ria.