Seeing the Big Picture in Sochi

We are nearing the end of the Sochi Olympics, and as you’ve probably witnessed, there have been an incredible assortment of stories and achievements that have made these games special. One specific story that came out during this season reminds me of a leadership skill we can instill in students called Life Sentence.

Life Sentence

The contribution of a leader will ultimately be summed up in one sentence. Although we participate in many activities, we’re remembered for just one or two. What will your sentence be?


This image comes from Book Three of Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. It was inspired by walking around a cemetery while reading the epitaphs on the gravestones. Each person’s life was summed up in a few words on a stone.

Here’s another way to think about it. Years after you die, people will be in a conversation at the office, on a campus, or maybe at a church. Somebody will remember you and bring up your name in conversation. After a pause, someone else will ask about what you did. The person who responds will likely do so in one sentence. That’s all. They’ll describe the entirety of your work and life in one sentence. I know you deserve a paragraph. Possibly even a chapter, or a book on what you’ve accomplished. But, alas, time only permits one sentence in that brief conversation.

Claire Luce Booth first popularized this idea when she observed that history usually summarizes the contribution of a leader in a single sentence. Who was George Washington? Who was Andrew Johnson? How about Dwight Eisenhower? Each get a headline for what they did. It may not be fair, but it’s true.

Alex Bilodeau

photo credit: John Biehler via photopin cc

photo credit: John Biehler via photopin cc

If you watched the Men’s Moguls event earlier last week, we saw Alex Bilodeau win the Gold medal for this event. Then I saw his story and how his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, played a part in his accomplishments. (Here is a video of their story.)

“He has dreams like you and I, he can’t go after those dreams. I have the abilities, I can at least try to go after my dreams, and out of respect for him I go after them.” – Alex Bilodeau

After hearing his story, I immediately thought of this Habitude. Alex’s life was based on his personal passion, burdens, values, natural talents, and opportunities.

Here’s my question for you. What will your sentence be? I believe you can influence that sentence now by the way you live your life. Are you living your life on purpose, or by accident? Do you know your purpose in life, or do you simply react to life as it comes at you? Do you play offense, or just defense in your life? Have you chosen your sentence?

Thinking about how we want to be remembered is sobering. It is also very telling.

Your Sentence

I believe every one’s “life sentence” ought to be unique, based on their personal passion, burdens, values, natural talents, and opportunities. I am never interested in learning leadership simply for leadership’s sake. I want to do more than increase the profits of IBM when I lead. I want the world to be a better place because I invested my life in people. When we choose our life sentence early, we become proactive with our agenda. Life is no longer about merely reacting to the circumstances. In fact, I believe knowing your life sentence opens your eyes to opportunities to fulfill it.

Talk It Over

Have you ever tried to summarize your life in a sentence?  What would you want to be remembered for in one sentence?



Discussion: If you died today—what would people say was your life sentence?



Think It Through

How does your life reflect your values, beliefs and leadership? Take a moment and evaluate yourself.

1. My lifestyle vividly displays my values and my purpose in life.

< poor 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 excellent >

2. I have a clear understanding of my one-sentence purpose in life.

< poor 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 excellent >

3. People can tell what my purpose is by the way I lead others.

< poor 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 excellent >

4. I am aware of my influence and consider how I affect others in my life.

< poor 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 excellent >

Live It Out

More than one hundred years ago, a Swedish chemist named Alfred Nobel opened up his morning newspaper and got quite a shock. He found his name listed in the obituary column. The columnists had confused him with his brother who had recently passed away. Hmmm. What an interesting predicament. Alfred had the opportunity to read his life sentence in the paper! Here is what he read, “Alfred Nobel, a chemist, died a wealthy man. As the inventor of dynamite, he enabled people to kill each other more efficiently than ever before.”

Reading those words was an eye-opening experience for him. He was actually being remembered for inventing dynamite and for aiding the death of multitudes. Clearly, that was not how he wanted to be remembered. So, Alfred took action. He set his wealth aside in a fund that was to be given to people who fostered peace, not killing. This fund still exists today and is known as The Nobel Peace Prize. What’s more, I love what Alfred Nobel observed late in his life. He said, “I believe everyone deserves a chance to change their obituary in the middle of their life.” I agree. And that’s what I want to do here.

What is your life sentence? Consider these elements as you attempt to write it out:

1. Your talents?

2. Your burdens?

3. Your passions?

4. Your values?

5. Your acquired skills?

6. Your desires?

7. Your education?

8. Your opportunities?


Seeing the Big Picture in Sochi