John Dickerson is a correspondent for 60 Minutes. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic and the host of the Whistlestop podcast and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Emerson: The world is upheld by the veracity of good men

….and women, obviously.

I’ve been on a bit of an Emerson jag recently. (It’s all Walt Whitman’s fault.) It sent me back to my Emerson reader. In it I found my notes from Emerson’s essay “Uses of Great Men.” It is a meditation on the role those we admire play in our personal and national life. When you think about the intangible effect a president has on a culture, the ideas Emerson addresses come to mind.

Emerson:

“Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually or ideally, we manage to live with superiors.”

…every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.”

“Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds…I have observed there are persons who, in their character and actions, answer question[s] which I have not skill to put.”

I like this idea of character as a model. It draws wisdom from us by its example. Character teaches us.

So when evaluating public men and women and whether they have character, a measure is whether they draw greatness from others. Do other people hope to be better because of them. Are the people who work for them diminished or elevated?

This reminds me of a principle of great leadership from John Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Law number 5: The Law of Addition: “The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others.” Maxwell is talking about intentional moves a leader can take, while what Emerson describes is unintentional, but it feels like the same thing.

 

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