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Leaving A Mark May 2, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Frequent readers know I am working my way through Team Of Rivals, a great account of Abraham Lincoln’s political career.  As I read it, I am struck by the detailed information available to us 150 years after these events unfolded.  For the most part, the book is drawn from newspaper accounts of the era and personal letters from the various people involved.  Even today, these archives are well-preserved and readily accessible to any interested parties.

I think it will be impossible write such a book about our current world 150 years from now.  While we are recording more data in more ways than ever before, we are recording it in ways that are transient and unstable.  I haven’t written a real letter, on real paper, in 25 years.  I haven’t saved a letter I have received in the past 25 years.  No one will ever rummage through my attic, long after I am gone, and turn up a trove of letters, bound with ribbon and unlocking the secrets of my time.

What you might find would be utterly useless, even today.  I have a reel of 9-track tape that holds all the code I wrote at my first job, between 1982 and 1985.  I have floppy disks with old files, both 5.25″ and 3.5″, that are completely inaccessible to me now.  On my laptop are copies of my address book from a previous job, cleverly stored in the Novell Address Book format.  Lots of data, stories to be told, lost to the ages.  Over my career, I’ve posted thousands of articles to dozens of Usenet newsgroups, and posted a weekly movie ratings report to rec.arts.movies for five years.  Perhaps two dozen of these posts still survive in remote corners of the Usenet archives on the web.  I ran a web site for six years, and wrote weekly columns for three other sites for almost ten years.  Again, all gone, deleted without a second thought when those sites were shuttered.  Even these blog entries will be gone without a trace in twenty years.

My father has half-a-dozen original photos of my ancestors in Italy, taken between 1880 and 1905.  They have survived over 100 years, passed from generation to generation as precious heirlooms, given the appropriate care that such a rare artifact deserves.  In my children’s hands, they will survive another 70 years before being turned over to the next generation with a similar admonishment to take care of them.  I also have over 5,000 photos taken over the past ten years, stored as JPEG images on my laptop and carefully archived using Adobe Photo Album.  Does anyone really believe that these photos will be accorded the same care?  Will someone copy them from media to media every few years, converting them to some new format as needed?  When my son takes out the photo of his great-great-great-grandmother in 50 years, will he be able to look at those photos from our church retreat last weekend just as easily?  I doubt it.

I worry that we are not leaving a mark, a tangible reminder of our thoughts and dreams and lives.  Lincoln’s letters (and those of his contemporaries) are filled with deep thoughts, emotions, and dreams.  They are transcribed conversations that reflect what people were doing across a period of years.  What are we leaving behind?  Facebook pages?  YouTube videos?  A thousand unrelated tweets on Twitter?  Lots of data, very little content, all in a format that is exceedingly perishable.  In the end, the most connected generation may leave behind the smallest useful footprint of our daily lives.

I don’t have a solution to this.  Should we all start writing letters?  It makes my hand hurt just to think about it.  Convert everything to paper hard copy?  I don’t have the space to store it all, and I wonder how long the ink would last before fading away.

I think it is important to leave a mark, large or small, one way or another.  Perhaps the mark we leave, like that of Lincoln, transcends the paper and photos and is truly captured by the lives we touch and affect for all the years to come.  In that regard, we should all live our lives in the hope that we could touch even a fraction of those impacted by Lincoln and that 100 years from now, someone would still know our name.

Abraham Lincoln: Nerd! April 9, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Abraham Lincoln is an American icon: an honest, unwavering, hardworking, self-taught leader that saved the United States from self-destruction.  To that list of attributes I can safely add “dork.”

I’ve been reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a superb history of Abraham Lincoln with a focus on his political and leadership skills.  Goodwin’s engaging style presents a detailed view of Lincoln’s life against the backdrop of the early- to mid-1800s.

As I read Goodwin’s repeated descriptions of Lincoln,  I am struck by his, well, dorkiness.  He was tall and gangly, with ill-fitting and out-of-style clothes.  His pants stopped a full two inches above his ankles.  His suitcoat was poorly cut, too tight in front and billowing in back.  He wore enormous Conestoga boots.  His hair was unkempt.  He was a country bumpkin, tongue-tied in the presence of women.  Once, upon entering a society ball and seeing the women therein, he loudly exclaimed to the other men “Boy, aren’t the women clean!”

How, then, did this man win the presidency and save the Union?  Simply put, spectacular communication skills.  Although distracted by women, he was a masterful raconteur among the men (keeping in mind that only men voted back then).  He could captivate an audience, large or small, and understood how to present an argument in a style that resonated with people.  He could finesse his way through sensitive political situations and read people exceptionally well.  He was self-effacing and humble, but never lost sight of his goals.

There is a huge lesson in this, especially for those of us that tend to fall on the nerdy end of the scale.  In almost every aspect of life, and certainly among executive leaders, communications skills are the key driver for success.  Over and over, Goodwin recounts people who met Lincoln, completely dismissed him based on his appearance, and subsequently became spellbound when he began to speak.  His ability to reach people through w ords transcended his innate goofy appearance.

As you work to excel as a leader, keep Lincoln in mind.  Given the modern ready access to better-fitting clothes, nicer shoes, and modern plumbing, your appearance is easy to correct.  Focus your time in formulating your thoughts and learning how to express them.  You’ll probably never find yourself needing to become president or save the Union, but you will find yourself succeeding in whatever you put your mind to.