Leadership Lessons from Garfield: Having a Purpose
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Garfield’s first job on the canal was as a driver, the lowliest position among a group of rough, and occasionally violent, men. As the months passed, he became increasingly comfortable with the life he had fashioned for himself. He knew that the work he was doing, and the men he met along the way, likely made him “ripe for ruin,” but he was willing to take that chance.

Before he could “drink in every species of vice,” however, the course of his young life took a sudden turn. As he stood alone at the bow one night, struggling with a coiled rope, he lost his balance and, before he could right himself, fell into the canal. He had fallen in before, more than a dozen times, but each time it had been daylight, and there had been men on the deck to pull him out.

Now it was midnight, and Garfield was certain that he would drown. He cried out for help although he knew it was useless. Everyone on the boat was fast asleep. As he searched frantically and blindly for something to save his life, his hands suddenly struck the rope that had been the cause of his fall. Gripping it tightly, he found that, with a “great struggle,” he could use it to slowly pull himself up until, finally, he fell heavily onto the boat.

As he sat, dripping and scared, on the deck of the canal boat, Garfield wondered why he was still alive. The rope was not secured to anything on the boat. When he had pulled on it, it should have fallen off the deck, slipping to the bottom of the canal and leaving him to drown. “Carefully examining it, I found that just where it came over the edge of the boat it had been drawn into a crack and there knotted itself,” he would later write. “I sat down in the cold of the night and in my wet clothes and contemplated the matter.… I did not believe that God had paid any attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canaling.”

Although his life would change dramatically in the years to come, Garfield would never be able to tell the story of that night without wonder. Looking back on it, moreover, he would have a much clearer and broader understanding of its importance than he could have hoped to have at sixteen. “Providence only could have saved my life,” he wrote years later, struggling to understand all that had happened to him in the intervening years. “Providence, therefore, thinks it worth saving.”

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic (pp. 20-21). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In both of our leadership books, Trust is Everything, and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader, we have chapters that have to do with what we call “enlarging your purpose.” By this, we mean that trustworthy leaders who have built organizations that have been successful for many years, even decades, have done so in part because have they have chosen to make a positive difference in the communities they operate in. The organization’s communities can be local, global, or both in scope. They represent a way for the leader and the organization to serve populations that have a need that is not being fully met by our country’s free market economy, social service organizations, or federal, state, or local governments.

Ted Castle and Burlington, Vermont-based Rhino Foods, for example, took it upon themselves first to hire refugees from Bosnia and countries in Africa, whom had been placed in their town. Equally important, they then decided to teach them English so that they could be as productive as their fellow Vermonters who had grown up in the U.S.

Rhino Foods employees were already deeply engaged in their company because of many management and leadership practices that we and others have found to benefit both employee well-being and firm performance. But, they wanted to do more than just help the company and each other out. As a result, not only has Rhino Foods continue to thrive and grow, but Ted and the company have been recognized by the B-Corporation for his servant leadership and their contributions to society.

Now, Ted and his colleagues motivations to enlarge their purpose are different than those of the twentieth President, but the difference they continue to make year after year in the lives of refugees is wonderful, nonetheless.