Taking action – the imperative for each of us

This past week we watched a historic event. As Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th President of the United States of America, regardless of political affiliation, we stood witness to the incredible change, which has taken place in our country over the past 200 years. I listened intently to this speech for any and all points of perspective that would shed light on where he wants to lead our country.

There were a few rich nuggets I took to heart. One was his passionate call to action for each and every one of us:

“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act …”

Thus, it is the point of taking action that I want to focus this week.

Talking and philosophizing, strategizing and planning, political rhetoric – without action – is simply a waste of time and energy. Now, I am certainly not negating the importance of having a vision, a plan and selling the plan to our stakeholders; yet, there comes a time where we just have to do it and execute!

No one can do this for us. It is our individual responsibility to be accountable, and take action to achieve our goals – whatever they may be.

Another miraculous event recently shines a bright light on the merits of taking action. When the pilot of US Airways flight 1549 was faced with crash landing due to birds catching his engine on fire, he didn’t hesitate on what to do. He took action, steered the plane toward the Hudson River, his new landing strip, calmly told the cabin to “brace for impact” and then miraculously saved more than 150 lives.

The story doesn’t end here. A friend of mine (the Pastor of my church) was actually in a bar in New York City not long after this crash, and there was a rowdy group of folks slamming them back hard and fast – and really having a great time. My friend had to inquire what they were celebrating. Amazingly, they were a group of passengers from flight 1549 who had survived the crash!  After hearing the tales of the experience from the group, he asked: “what do you think the primary reason was that you all survived?” and the passenger said – well, there wasn’t just one reason – I will give you two: “First, everyone – everyone took action. No one sat back. Everyone got up – old and young – and took action to get out of the plane. And secondly, no one gave up. No one quit – everyone kept pushing and pulling and wading through the frigid water in the cabin, helping each other. Those were the two reasons we all survived, after the pilot had successfully landed the plane.”

Wow. What a story and what a lesson about taking action and not giving up – regardless how dim the situation appears. There is another quotation I want to highlight from President Obama’s speech:

“Greatness is never a given, it must be earned.”

How true this is.  Hard work, smart work, discipline, commitment, and taking action toward excellence – these are the tenants for greatness in our chosen lives and professions. Regardless of the hardships, the slippery slopes, or the tremendous adversarial challenges; it is our responsibility to rise to the occasion.

I heard a marvelous story several years ago, which I looked into further in preparing this week’s blog. It is a tremendous example of how greatness can be earned through taking action in the most difficult times. It is a story about Itzhak Perlman, whom we all saw play so beautifully with Yo Yo Ma at the President’s inauguration. I found this recollection of the story in a wonderful book: Alpha Leadership: Tools for Business Leaders Who Want More from Life by Ann Deering, Robert Dilts and Julian Russell.

“On November 1995, the violinist Itzhak Perlman performed at the Lincoln Center in New York City. He had polio as a child and walks with crutches. The audience waited patiently as he made his way slowly across the stage to his chair, sat down, put his crutches on the floor, removed the braces from his legs, settled himself in his characteristic pose, one foot tucked back, the other pushed forwards, bent down to pick up his violin, gripped it with his chin, and nodded to the conductor to indicate he was ready.

“It was a familiar ritual for Perlman fans: the crippled genius making light of his disability before his sublime music transcended everything. But this time was different.

” ‘Just as he finished the first few bars,’ the Houston Chronicle music critic recalls, ‘one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.’ It was obvious – he had to put down his violin, replace his braces, pick up the crutches, heave himself to his feet, make his laborious way offstage and either get another violin or restring his crippled instrument.

“He didn’t. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The audience was spell-bound.

“Everyone knows it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. He played with such passion and such power and such purity … You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head… At one point it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get … sounds from them they had never made before.

“When he finished there was an awed silence, and then the audience rose, as one.

“We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering – doing everything that we could to show him how much we appreciated what he’d done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music he can still make with what he has left.’ ”

He took action, overcame his obstacle, and made music with what he had left. If anyone questioned the talent, commitment, devotion – and greatness – of Itzhak Perlman before that performance, they certainly didn’t after that night. His musical genius was only one representation of his greatness in life. We all have the opportunity to ‘make music’ with what we have left – the first step is take action.

In closing, I want to quote one last excerpt from President Obama’s speech – which I believe sums up my point for this blog. He was quoting our First President of the United States, George Washington, speaking to his troops as they faced imminent danger during our country’s revolution:

“Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

We are certainly facing our own unprecedented rapid currents, icy cold economies, and dying fires – on every front. We can choose to worry and espouse the concerns of the situations we face. Or, we can choose to take action – individually and collectively.  We can choose to come forth and meet it. The call has been made to us to take action – from our first President to our current President.

Only through action can greatness be achieved.