Leadership Lessons from Garfield: Dignity
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Although Garfield understood clearly, and at times painfully, that he was poor, he had inherited from his mother an innate dignity that never failed to inspire respect. His mother was fiercely proud that she and her children had “received no aid, worked and won their living and could look any man in the face.” Even as a child, Garfield walked with his shoulders squared and his head thrown back. “If I ever get through a course of study I don’t expect any one will ask me what kind of a coat I wore when studying,” he wrote to his mother while attending a nearby school, “and if they do I shall not be ashamed to tell them it was a ragged one.”

Eliza Garfield’s greatest ambition for her second son was a good education. She came from a long line of New England intellectuals, including a president of Tufts College and the founder and editor of a Boston newspaper. She donated some of her land for a small schoolhouse so that her children, as well as her neighbors’ children, could have a place to learn.”

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic (p. 20). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

My late mother and President Garfield’s mother had a lot in common. She was incredibly self-reliant, yet a deeply devoted mother and wife. I remember her helping others all the time, and I’m not even sure when she actually slept.

More than anything else, she wanted her three boys to receive great educations. She was an American first-generation college graduate, and who had married an Indian immigrant who had come to America for his graduate education and stayed to earn his Ph.D. It was no surprise that she strongly believed how transformative a good education could be.

We also grew up with very little money. Middle class, not poor, but with very little discretionary income. Still, she was easily one of the most generous people I’ve known. She would have been a sister to the woman who put in her last two coins as an offering to God.

In a mirror to Garfield’s story, my two younger brothers and I lost our mom when I was 11, my middle brother 9, and my youngest brother had just turned five. That traumatic event certainly influenced us in ways we are still considering almost fifty years later. But before she passed away, our mom had instilled a dignity in us that wasn’t dependent on how much money we made, what we looked like, or how popular we were. Instead, our self-respect was based on how we treated others, what we did with the talents that God gave us, and how we made the most of the opportunities that growing up as a middle-class kid in the Midwest in the Sixties and Seventies had available.

When kids made fun of us in middle school for the patches on our clothes, or for being “four-eyed,” their mean comments stung, but not for long. After all, our mom (and our dad) years before had taught us to be proud of what we were doing, and where we going, and not to be concerned about those who knew neither what they were doing nor where they were going.

Having dignity and treating others with dignity is the foundation of trustworthy leadership. This is probably why I am drawn to the leaders I study and learn from, including Garfield.