Cummings made a real difference.
Elijah Cummings lies in state at the U.S. Capitol today as the first African-American lawmaker in history to ever do so. He will be honored and eulogized by two U.S. presidents tomorrow at Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore. While the country grieves his passing and the loss of a giant, Americans are lifting him up and celebrating his honorable life and career.
The privilege to lie in state at the Capitol has been “bestowed to only a few dozen statesmen, presidents and military leaders throughout U.S. history,” says Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan in Politico. In particular, his casket has been placed “atop a wooden ‘catafalque’ which has often been used for state funerals and was first used for President Abraham Lincoln,” according to Fox News.
Every bit of news that I’ve listened to and read about Cummings singles him out for leading an honorable life and career. He is described as a genuinely good and kind man who loved and was loved by friends, family, colleagues, community members and national leaders. He is described as a fierce and passionate civil rights leader and a dedicated congressman. He is celebrated and honored as a national statesman. But he didn’t start here.
Cummings started as the son of a sharecropper and became one of the most respected voices in the U.S. Congress. After first being elected in 1996, he elevated his career in public service, and he made it his business to commit everything he could to his career, his community, his nation and his family.
This is not a piece about politics.
I don’t write about politics. I focus my efforts on strategy, organizational change, performance, leadership and careers. And because I have been experiencing quite a bit of loss myself in recent years, I have become more curious about how we measure the value and worth of individuals and then align that value to our personal lives and careers. I’ve been studying what it is that we, universally, tend to focus on after a person dies. What is it that others attempt to sum up when they talk about and describe someone who has passed on?
Regardless of where you sit or stand on the political spectrum, it is abundantly clear what our society – and likely our own families and colleagues – focus on after death. There are clear fundamentals that stand the test of time about what we use to measure the worth or value of a life. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about your personal friend, your brother, your boss or public figures. We seem to have a defined set of metrics – clear fundamentals – for what it takes to establish an honorable life and career.
Three fundamentals of an honorable life and career.
The three fundamentals evident from Elijah Cumming’s life are the same fundamentals we all need to care about if we want to be remembered honorably by those who know and come into contact with us.
1. The uplifting and impactful experiences you create for others.
“This job here – I love this job because I can help masses of people at one time.” – Elijah Cummings
Cummings lived an honorable life, and he applied honorable principles to his career. An honorable life and career is one that creates uplifting and impactful experiences for others. In order for you to matter long after you are gone, you have to make some kind of positive difference in other people’s lives while you are here. What opportunities did you take this week, this month or this year to make it about others and show them how much they matter?
Whether you work in the public or private space, the value and worth attached to your legacy or memory after you have passed will be measured – in part – against the impact you had on the lives of other people. If honor matters to you, as much as climbing the career ladder does, here are five questions you will want to consider:
- Are you intentionally making efforts to uplift those with whom you work? How do you go about doing this?
- Do you volunteer for programs or projects that serve a greater purpose where you may never benefit financially?
- How often do you stop and listen to those around you who don’t have the power or influence to give you a raise or a promotion?
- How do you show your friends, family and colleagues that you care about their needs?
- Do people ever write, call or otherwise let you know that you have positively impacted their lives in one way or another? How do you show gratitude for this?
2. The level of integrity you demonstrate with yourself and others.
The work I do is “consistent with what I believe my purpose is on earth.” – Elijah Cummings
Members of Congress, on both sides of the isle, describe Cummings as a man of integrity. Integrity isn’t just something that public officials should care about. Honorable leaders set and hold themselves to professional standards for ethics and integrity. You have to get real honest about the motives for the decisions you make for yourself, your team and your organization.
More than just trying to impress outside observers and stakeholders, honorable people start with being true to themselves. They work to align their career choices with their passion and purpose. Consider these five questions when assessing your integrity.
- Have you defined – and do you uphold – a set of professional and personal standards for behavior and decisions?
- When a decision presents an ethical dilemma, are you prone to do what is right for the greater good (the larger organization), or is it more important to consider how it resounds to the benefit of those you like?
- How much time do you commit to weighing the positive and negative (even unintentional) consequences of actions you take?
- Do you do the right thing when others are looking and especially when they are not?
- What steps do you take to ensure that you don’t sacrifice your integrity while pursuing career goals and professional advancement?
3. The contributions you make to your community or to your profession.
“I think it’s important for industry to do well. But I want them to do well and do good at the same time.” – Elijah Cummings
Elijah Cummings never forgot where he came from and made genuine contributions to both his personal and professional communities. We don’t all need to go into public service like Elijah Cummings did to make great contributions to our communities and our professions. There are myriad opportunities to shape and influence people, programs and services within our personal lives and within our chosen careers.
In order to be remembered as a person who lived an honorable life, you have to engage with and contribute to your personal or professional community. Here are five questions to consider as you weigh your contributions.
- What specific things are you doing to advance your profession? Beyond going to work daily to do your own job, do you give back or contribute to the profession or the community in some meaningful way?
- Do you ever serve on committees or boards or offer to speak or write about something that will help to elevate your profession and others in it?
- When is the last time you dedicated time to develop someone from a younger generation? Do you ever agree to mentor, work with or share free advice with a young career professional?
- Are you open to listen to and take advice from newcomers to your profession? Do you make a point to seek out new ideas and different ways of thinking from someone with less experience than you?
- What actions have you taken within the last five years to contribute to your personal or professional community? Do you engage with activities that serve to better your neighborhood, community or society at large? How?
Are you working to make a difference while working on your career?
Cummings made a real difference, and he had an amazing career.
Just like Elijah Cummings, you and I will indeed die one day. I gather that most of us care about making a difference. We want to positively impact others in some meaningful way and leave a memory that reflects well on who we think we are or who we want to be.
When it’s all said and done in this world, our college degrees, certifications, salaries and job titles won’t matter at all. What will matter most are the experiences we create for others, the strength of our integrity and the contributions we make to our communities and our professions. These three fundamentals will factor heavily into whether or not people end up speaking highly about us, whether they truly respect and honor us and whether they want to celebrate the fact that we ever existed at all.
What perspective and memory do you want to leave others with long after you are gone, and what are you doing today to create that perspective?