Watching President Obama deliver his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, I thought of another young, charismatic president, John F. Kennedy, and his inaugural address 51 years ago.
There are many notable quotes from Kennedy’s speech, but the one that has stuck in my mind lately is the oft-repeated: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
I agree with Kennedy that you shouldn’t depend on government to do what you can do for yourself. That’s especially resonated with me as I’ve transitioned from a full-time employee with good benefits to a self-employed consultant with no benefits. It’s easy to get into an entitlement frame of mind (“why should I have to pay for my own health insurance?”), but really the only thing the government owes me is an opportunity to get up every morning and work like everyone else.
The second part of the quote is meant to be a call to service, and it spawned a generation of volunteers to work in the Kennedy-inspired Peace Corps and VISTA programs.
In many ways, Kennedy’s famous request to “give back” foreshadows the “servant leadership” thinking introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf a decade later and popularized by Stephen Covey and others. It’s the time-tested truism that it’s better to give than to get and that by serving you are practicing enlightened leadership.
Along the same lines, Marc Cenedella, the CEO of The Ladders, wrote a column recently in which he suggested that job interviewers ask their future boss, “How do I help you get a gold star on your review next year?”
As Cenedella explains, “the interview process lends itself to our becoming self-absorbed and talking only about ourselves.
“Working together and being a good addition to the team means being concerned with how you are making the team successful,” he writes. “And that means being concerned with how much you are helping to make your boss successful.”
Asking how you can help your future boss “shows that you have empathy,” he continues. “It shows that you are not just a self-absorbed ‘what’s in it for me’ kind of person. And it shows that you know you are there to ‘give’ as much as you are there to ‘get.’”
History buffs will remember that the poet Robert Frost, then 87 at the time, recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration. The poem describes the history of our land, noting that the American colonists had to give themselves “outright” to become an independent nation. Until the colonists were willing to give themselves completely to their new land and accept the sacrifices that meant (such as war with England), the land would not be America’s to possess.
When you recognize that most of what we get in life is the result of sacrifice and giving, you begin to see the wisdom of Kennedy’s words. I’m not trying to be partisan, but I wish there was an equally memorable takeaway from President Obama’s speech.