Skip to main content

asking people to be great

Passing along a great reminder for leaders, teachers, parents … anyone in a position of influence.


Are you asking people to be great?
May 2, 2011 David Witt

My friend and colleague Jesse Lyn Stoner featured a great story about Abraham Lincoln on her blog site. Lincoln would often slip out of the White House on Wednesday evenings to listen to the sermons of Dr. Finnes 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.”

As leaders, it’s important that we remember to ask our people to do something great. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s a basic human need. Too often, as leaders we hesitate in asking our people to do a little more, try a little harder, push a little extra. The fear is that we are asking too much. Is it possible that the real problem is that we are asking too little?

People perform best when they are working toward meaningful goals that are difficult, challenging, and worthwhile. Leaders don’t do their direct reports any favors when they reduce job roles down to easy-to-perform tasks that can be accomplished with a minimum of effort. Set hard goals for your people and watch them shine.

You’ve Set Challenging Goals, Now the Hard Part

Why don’t leaders set hard goals for their people and hold them accountable for achieving them? Why is everyone so skittish about confronting sub-par performance? The answer lies in another Lincoln quote I ran across last month.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”

Leaders cannot just set hard goals, call it a day, and consider their job done. Leaders also need to be willing to step up to the bar with a servant’s heart and be willing to provide the direction and support that people need when they are stretching themselves to achieve difficult goals. This is the leader’s half of the equation and this is the part that has caused so many people to back away from accountability.

If the leader doesn’t feel right about the amount of time they’ve spent meeting with their direct reports, spending time with them inquiring about progress and providing direction and support on a regular basis, it is pretty embarrassing to ask the employee how they are doing.

When leaders are doing their part, when they are exhibiting a willingness to help as Lincoln identifies, then they have the right to hold others accountable. That is the second half of the equation that makes Lincoln so well-loved around the world. People recognize that Lincoln expected the best from people, but was also willing to go to the extra mile to help them. One without the other is only half the story. Great leadership means asking people to do something great—and then being there with the direction and support people need to succeed.