The Sentence: Do You Have One?

Peggy Noonan’s column in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal centered on a story Clare Booth Luce told about a conversation she had with President Kennedy in 1962. Noonan writes: “She told him…that ‘a great man is one sentence.’ His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves,’ or, ‘He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.’ You didn’t have to be told ‘Lincoln’ or ‘FDR.'”

Could you become so identified with the goal you are trying to achieve that upon hearing it everyone will know it’s yours? What would it take to make that happen?

Let’s really try and localize this concept for a second. Forget Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and Obama. You may do something on that scale and that would be incredible. But let’s keep it a little more down to earth for a moment: you’re a leader in your organization, you are committed to learning, development and change and you are determined to have significant impact in your department, your company and/or your industry. What are you willing to do about it? And are you ready to be identified as “that leader,” working on “that goal”?

For the last four years I’ve been urging the leaders (and aspiring leaders) in my company to determine the thing that matters most and make a plan to do it. Everything else is extraneous, a distraction, a nuisance at best and a hiding place from doing the real work at worst.

And, I’ve struggled with this as much as anybody. I’ve been vague, uncertain and downright fearful of stating my intention and clarifying my outcome. And why? Because if I say it someone actually might expect me to do it. What that doesn’t factor in is that those same “someones” may also want to help me make it real. Go figure.

So, in the spirit of moving out of the darkness and into the light, here’s my sentence: “He inspired leaders to be more fully human and to create organizations that unleash human potential.”

What’s yours?

One thought on “The Sentence: Do You Have One?

  1. Dear David, Thanks for reinforcing this culture-critical idea. One hallmark of the leadership classes we teach is the idea that leaders must come up with a "unique leader proposition." Last class produced 28 "sentences." Perhaps most memorable was an executive in Risk Management, whose job is to reduce — he would say "eliminate" — preventable accidents. His vision statement: "Lead as if your kids work here." (Everything comes out of that, doesn't it? If your own children worked here, you would train them, give them the proper tools, make sure they worked reasonable hours, hold their coworkers to top safety standards, make sure they did not cut safety by cutting corners, and so on…).As for my sentence: "I am working to change the world for the better, one leader at a time."

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