Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can – everyone – do our share to redeem the world in spite of all the absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.

Greenleaf uses this quote to begin the eighth chapter entitled; Servant-Leaders. Indeed this chapter is long and rightly so as he highlights the lives of two very influential men who were instrumental in Greenleaf’s life. These men were; Abraham Joshua Heschel (Rabbi Heschel) and Donald John Cowling (President of Carleton College from 1909 to 1945).

Indeed, the bulk of the 41-page chapter is devoted to Cowling – perhaps due to the fact that Carleton College was Greenleaf’s alma mater. But I feel that Greenleaf used so much of this chapter describing Cowling because Greenleaf self admittedly confesses that he did not share Herschel’s scholarship or theology.

Interestingly, Greenleaf begins the section regarding Cowling with the question,

What does it mean to be great?

How would you answer that question? (I might post this question on FB soon to see what others think so you’ll have your shot then)

As I was reading through this chapter I found my mind wondering back to Herschel. Contrasting his life with Cowling. No doubt both were influential and lived great lives. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder about which one carried more significance.

Cowling built a college, navigated it through the tumultuous years of World War I, helped it survive the Great Depression, and guided it through the years of World War II. Also, there is no doubt that the college, under his leadership, helped forge the lives of many who would go on to shape their world and the future of the United States.

In describing Cowling, Greenleaf writes that Cowling chose a lifestyle that was congruent with his own unique personality – he stayed with it consistently over a long and impressively constructive life. I wonder,

Is this what makes someone great?

Yet, there remains this nagging thought about the depth of impact from a man like Herschel. Born a Hasidic Jew in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, Herschel found himself immersed in a world of conflict. In 1936 he earned his PhD in Berlin, was later expelled to Warsaw in 1938 and escaped the following year to London.

Established an institute of higher learning there before immigrating to New York in 1940. Fluent in six languages he wrote extensively, travelled broadly, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and his credo was;

Just to be is a blessing; Just to live is holy

This brings up the question once again, What does it mean to be great?

Greenleaf lists some habits that made Cowling exceptional;

  • A lifelong pattern of unremitting work, and essential gaiety, and good humour.
  • Working so well at his previous college (Yale) that the trustees of Carleton simply couldn’t ignore Cowling in their search.
  • His workday began early and ended about 10 pm.
  • He would get 8 hours of sleep every night. No compromises.

Indeed Cowling himself stated that his formula was;

Plenty of sleep; not too much food; drink lots of water; nap after lunch; moderate exercise (he walked on average 3-4 miles [5-6.5km] per day) – don’t forget this is a period lasting from 1907 to 1945…before any “leadership gurus” started arriving on the scene!

Cowling also attributed his success to the realization that any form of important influence on the complex system called Carleton College must be wielded through persuasion.

A fitting tribute to Cowling was the declaration from Greenleaf that [Cowling’s] highest values were that deep down inside he knew who he was.

Coming to the end of the chapter I found some solace in the statement made by Greenleaf and which perhaps encapsulates the thesis of the entire book to this point;

Achievement is essential, but it is not enough. It is the quality of people, seen over a life span within the context of their particular achievements that must be weighed.

Well said. This might prove to be one answer to the question of ‘What does it mean to be great?’

Quotes for Building a Life like a Work of Art

I’ve learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man…I think that everyone who reads the prophets will discover that the prophets really were the most disturbing people who ever lived – p.p.265-266

For a pious man it is a privilege to die – p.268

We are all the creatures of our experience – not necessarily the servants or the prisoners of it. – p. 275

There is an old adage that one does not argue with success – p. 279

The private possession of advantages is justified when they are regarded as a social trust, and on no other theory – p. 294


vis facare – we get stronger by doing

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