Skip to main content

One of the nation’s most effective leaders is Abraham Lincoln. Known for his effectiveness in telling stories, Lincoln observed, “I believe I have the popular reputation of being a storyteller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself, but its purpose, or effect, that interests me.”[i] As I indicated in Part I, I use stories to deliver a message, not to entertain. (It’s not a bad thing if they entertain, but it’s icing on the cake.)

While serving as UA’s chancellor, I collected and used stories about students. I also told a story about my mother, one that I shared on pp. 213-215 in Why It Matters. As a professor, I used many stories to motivate students to pay attention to what I was discussing in class.

When I taught engineering economic analysis, index cards were made available for students to provide feedback on lectures. I asked them to write the most important thing they learned during the class session on one side of the card and to use the other side of the card for any questions they wanted me to answer. I said the first 10 minutes of the class were theirs and I would respond to their questions.

After two or three class meetings, none of the questions related to course content. Instead, they related to life. Students asked if I was married, how I met my wife, did I have children, what kind of car did I drive, was I a Democrat or Republican, how much money did I make, where did I purchase my suits, how many ties did I own, what should they wear when they go for a job interview, did I know Bill and Hillary Clinton, and so forth. Because students were so interested in hearing answers to their questions, few were late in arriving to class. The questions also gave me an opportunity to provide “fatherly” or “grandfatherly” advice.

Typically, semester after semester, the questions students asked were very similar. However, one day a student asked a very different question: “What is the best advice you can give us?” I quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true!”[ii] Then, I said I was referring to what they saw when they looked into a mirror, looked deeply into their eyes, into the depths of their being. I asked, “Do you like what you see? Do you like what kind of person you are?”

I added, “It’s possible for you to cheat in my class and not get caught. It breaks my heart! Not that you won’t get caught, but that you’ll cheat. When we are born, each of us is given a large block of granite to carry with us through life. Each thought we have, each word we speak, and each action we take chips off parts of the granite. If you cheat in my class, you have chipped off granite and begun to define yourself—a cheater. You don’t have a switch in your body you can click on and off to be or not be a cheater; you’re hard wiring who you are. So, when you take other classes, you’ll cheat. When you graduate, you’ll cheat on your employer. You’ll probably cheat on your income taxes and, because of who you are, you’ll cheat on your spouse or partner.

“While a member of Georgia Tech’s faculty, I had a consulting firm, SysteCon. Over time, I added two full-time partners, Jim Apple, Jr. and Hugh Kinney. Jim is the most imaginative person I know; he was always developing unique, innovative solutions to problems. Hugh is the best consultant I know; he was the MVP for our firm. I was the rain maker, but Hugh was the rock.

“Things were going very well, but one day Hugh came to see me and said he decided he needed to leave. He was offered a partnership in a firm in California and would be fixed financially for life. I was crushed. However, because I cared so deeply for Hugh, I told him I hated to see him leave, but I understood and wanted what was best for him and his family.

“For a couple of weeks, I didn’t get much sleep, because I knew we would not be able to survive without Hugh’s steady presence. However, Hugh came to see me and said he decided to stay. When I asked why he changed his mind, Hugh said he had a vision—not a dream, but a vision. In his vision, there was a large barge, painted black, and on it people were partying, all dressed in black. He said the two of us were standing on the dock; as he stepped on the barge, it began to move away, and, when he looked back, he saw me with my arm outstretched, my hand pointing at him. At the last possible moment, he jumped from the barge onto the dock and hugged me.

“I asked Hugh what his vision meant. He said the people partying on the barge were the people he would be working with in California. Then, he said he knew the men who would be his new partners cheated on their wives. He said if they cheated on their wives, they would cheat on him. He said he knew who I was and what I stood for. He said he wanted to be my partner.”

Then, looking at the students, I said, “The granite you are sculpting will be your tombstone. What do you want it to say about who you were when you were alive? ‘To thine own self be true!’”

Word must have traveled about my answer to the question. In subsequent semesters, frequently, a student wrote on the back of an index card, “What is the best advice you can give us?”


Next: Let Me Tell You a Story—Part IV


[i] Donald T. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times, Warner Books, New York, NY, 1992, p. 158.

[ii] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, Line 81.