Becoming a father has made me aware of how much emphasis our society places on conforming. The messages to play by the rules are built into the very fabric of our culture.
My wife and I recently took our son to the doctor for his checkup. The doctor seemed concerned that my wife was a stay at home mom. Even though my son has great social skills, the doctor felt that he would benefit from being with a large group of kids. He suggested that we should consider putting him in day care so that he could learn the crucial skills of “lining up” and “following rules.”
Even childhood books carry the message that we should conform and stay where we are. The Little Golden Book entitled Scuffy the Tugboat is the story of a toy tugboat that was unhappy with just being in a bathtub. Scuffy says, “I was meant for bigger things.”
In his quest for greatness, Scuffy floats down a river and into the ocean. Overwhelmed by the vastness of the sea, Scuffy wishes that he were back in the bathtub. Luckily for him, his owner finds Scuffy in the water and takes him back home. The book ends with Scuffy once again in the bathtub and Scuffy saying, “This is the place for a red-painted tugboat and this is the life for me.” Scuffy’s dreams of greatness have been successfully squashed. Dreaming big can be dangerous so stay put.
The emphasis that our culture puts on conformity is not an accident. Corporations and the government needed diligent workers who did not rock the boat by thinking they were meant for bigger things. In return for sacrificing their aspirations, employees were “taken care of” by the corporations. An employee had the reasonable expectation that if he colored within the lines, he would not lose his job.
It was a Faustian bargain, but it worked at the time. In response to this arrangement, our schools and culture churned out the kind of people who could fill those corporate drone positions.
But now the game has changed. In the Great Recession of 2008-2010, the US economy lost 8.7 million jobs. Most of those jobs will never return. The US economy has been adding jobs, but as business journalist Maria Bartiromo pointed out recently, almost all of those jobs were created in Texas as part of the fracking/shale oil boom. OPEC is currently destroying those jobs as they flood the market with cheap oil in order to bankrupt rival oil producers.
This is actually a good thing as it forces people to rethink the programming we have received. One of the books that helped me do this is Alexander Havard’s Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity.
Havard’s book is ostensibly a book on leadership, but unlike most books on leadership, Havard goes back to classical sources, namely Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, to get to the very foundation of great leadership.
For Aristotle and Thomas, the foundation of leadership is built upon the four cardinal virtues. Havard writes:
Prudence increases the leader’s ability to make right decisions; courage permits him to stay the course and resist pressures of all kinds; self-control subordinates his emotions and passions to the spirit and directs their vital energy to the fulfillment of the mission at hand; justice impels him to give everyone his due.
Anyone can acquire virtues by diligently practicing them in his life, so great leaders are trained, not born.
Practicing the cardinal virtues is the bedrock of leadership, but to achieve greatness, something more is needed and that is the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity is the habit of striving toward greatness. But this cannot be some small effort. It has to be a burning desire. Magnanimity is a sacred quest for greatness.
But what tangible things can you do to become great?
- Be Virtuous. Begin practicing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, self-control, and justice in your life. Spend a few minutes every day meditating on how you can implement them.
- Take Action. Resolve not to be passive in life. Rather, cultivate the virtue of magnanimity. Havard states that “Magnanimity is the virtue of aggressiveness; it is ever prepared to attack, to conquer, to act with the impetuosity of a lion.”
- Seek the Company of Magnificent People. Go out of your way to make friends with men who display the virtue of magnanimity. If none of your friends care about growing in virtue, it may be time to find new friends.
- Read. Read the biographies of the great leaders of the past and emulate their good qualities.
- Have a Plan of Life. Develop a daily schedule and stick to it. Havard says that if you cannot stick to a demanding daily schedule, you will never become great.
- Admire Great Things. Become familiar with the great works of art, architecture, literature, and film. In the words of St. Paul: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
- Aim High. Set lofty goals and set to work on achieving them. Be realistic, but chose goals that really force you to stretch. These goals should make large improvements in your life and in the lives of others. Everyday, make sure you are taking some action to move closer to your goal.
- Be Courageous. Being magnanimous means that there are going to be times when you are blazing the trail by yourself. You’ll have to endure criticism and see a way where others do not see a way.
- Be Humble. This may seem contradictory to the virtue of magnanimity, but the virtue of humility is a necessary complement to being great. Humility does not mean that you constrain your dreams. It means that you also recognize greatness in others and treat them appropriately.
Created for Greatness is not a book that you read once and then put away. Read it slowly and meditate upon it until its truths become part of you.