Leo C. Rosten said “I cannot believe the purpose of life is to be only happy” I think the purpose of life is also to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate, to have made some difference that you have lived at all”. When Leo Rosten wrote this statement it is as if he had seen the life of Professor Wangari Maathai, a Lady who governed her life and thoughts as if the whole World were to see the one and read the other.
When Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin on the way to the Democratic nomination for President in 1968, his brother Senator Edward Kennedy gave the best speech of his long career and much of it quoted a speech given by Robert only a few years before to the students in South Africa.
He stated “Give me a place to stand said Archimedes, and I will move the world and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.’’
Professor Wangari Maathai found a place to stand and she moved the World. She worked to change the events and in total to all her acts will be written the history of this generation. Her death recently extinguished a hopeful light in Kenya. But the torch remains lit. It is in our hands.
I wish to remind all leaders that we live in two Worlds. One is the World of distraction and busyness without any legacy in sight. That World is like a cloud, it is going to perish. The other World we live in is where Professor Maathai is right now, the World of the eternal. And it is the reality of that latter World that has made me to give George Benard Shaw’s eloquent passion for life an eternal perspective. “I rejoice in life for its own sake” Shaw said in an address in 1907. “life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generation.’’
One reason I place Professor Wangari Maathai on short list of great heroes is because she was despite her few years of life no brief candle. She was a splendid torch, vital, charismatic, magnetic, attractive, and full of the attributes that all of us wish we had in greater abundance. Maathai used her gifts to the full each day. She didn’t shortcharge herself, even though her days among the Kenyan people were so few. Professor Maathai’s death while tragic was an inspiration to all in the Republic of Kenya and the World at large to burn brightly whiles it is day.
The greatest irony of leadership is that the more you give, the more you get. And when all is said and done the highest and most enduring gift that you will ever be able to give is the gift of what you leave behind. Your legacy to the generations that follow, will be how much value you have added to your organization, community, country or world and how many lives you have improved. As the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer observed;”There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed. ‘’ A father told his son while he lay in his death bed; “Be ashamed to die until you have scored victory for Mankind”. Professor Wangari Maathai has scored victory for mankind and has proved to the world that the purpose of life is a life of purpose.
I am saying visionary leaders link what they do with who they will serve and constantly focusing on leaving a rich footprint of service and contribution behind when they depart. Such leaders link leadership to legacy. In doing so they fulfill their calling. They fulfill their duty to liberate the fullness of their personal gifts for a worthy cause. All the great leaders who have gone before us have aspired to reach this pinnacle. Just before his death George Bernard Show was asked what he would do if he could live his life again. Though he had already achieved more in his lifetime, than most of us could only dream of , he replied humbly, “I would want to be the person I could have been but was not.”
Similarly, Professor Maathai when interviewed by the Drum Magazine in July and asked what things she would do differently, she said, “The one thing that I would do differently now is taking time off to raise my children. Perhaps I was taking too much into my hands when I was very young. I really think if I had to do things over, I would take care of my children first of all then try to go build a career.’’
Steve Jobs once said ‘’…no one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, will gradually become the old and be cleared away.’’ Jobs statements tend to go along the same line on what the famous English poet John Donne said, ‘’…Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’’. In this regard, allow yourself as a leader to listen for the bell. And before it tolls on you, allow it to be your wake up call. Refuse to die before you leave behind an indelible footprint.
The four statements from these great leaders that I have quoted tend to affirm what Jean Giraudoux said “Only the mediocre die always at their best. Real leaders are always improving and raising their bar on how superbly they can perform and how quickly they can move.’’ So continue giving service to humanity and also remember that what makes greatness is beginning something that does not end with you. In other words by rallying around a worthy cause and constantly asking how we can serve, the rewards will flow in degrees you cannot imagine. As they say in the east “A little fragrance always clings to the hand that gives you roses.’’ Remember also that ‘’leaders should lead as far as they can and vanish wrote H.G. Wells. Their ashes should not choke the fire they have lit.’’
Nyanchama is a member of ICPAK and Institute of Directors (Kenya) and a Motivational Public speaker on Transformational Leadership.