David McCullough tells the best stories about American history through the lens of leadership. Last year, he shared his encouraging, grounded perspective with Scott Berinato in this interview for HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW. Here are my favorite observations.
When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence.
Are we in a special or particularly fraught moment in our history? A turning point?
I’m very annoyed when I hear people who ought to know better flannelling away about how it was a simpler time “back then.” There was no simpler time. Never, ever. Imagine being in our country in 1918, and 500,000 people have died of a disease. No one knows where it came from or how long it’s going to stay or how to get rid of it. Would that be called a simpler time? Would the Civil War, or the Great Depression?
What makes a president a great leader?
The capacity to lift our sights a little higher. Someone who can call on us to make sacrifices, not promise to give us more. One who can say I’m not going to make it easier for us. I’m going to make it harder, because we have hard things to do. And let’s be grown up about this.
At the end of John Adams’s life, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to talk with the old president. Adams said to him, “I would to God there were more ambition in the country.” And then he paused and said, “by that I mean ambition of the laudable kind, ambition to excel.” Not ambition to get rich or famous or powerful but to excel. That’s when human beings are at their best. I like people who work hard; the people who are best at what they do almost without exception are also the hardest workers.