The son of a handloom weaver, Andrew Carnegie was born in the Scottish village of Dunfermline, Fife, in 1835. In 1848, at the age of 13 he, along with his family immigrated to the US where they settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He went to work in a factory earning the princely sum of $1.20 a week.
A year later he found a job as a telegraph messenger. In 1851, he had learned Morse code and became a telegraph operator. It was on to a position at the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1853 where he worked as Thomas Scott’s, a man with considerable power in the company, as assistant and telegraph operator. That association taught him about business in general and the railroad business in particular. By 1858 Carnegie was promoted to superintendent.
He was making enough money to begin investing some of it and did particularly well in oil. By 1865 he was doing well enough to leave the railroad and devote himself to his own businesses. For the next decade he focused on steel and over time became the largest steel manufacturer in the United States. Carnegie Steel became the largest in the world by 1899.
Like most great leaders, he had his less than noble side, being accused of exploiting workers. But his later years are noted for philanthropy and his devotion to funding libraries, some 2800 of them around the country. In 1899 he wrote an article called “Wealth” in which he advanced the need for those with great wealth to be socially responsible. In 1900, it was published as book titled “The Gospel of Wealth.” (You can read it online here, it is not lengthy.)
He was able to achieve fame and fortune even when life was hard and unaccommodating. How? Through unwavering and diligent work.
Superlative leaders are not lazy. They always engage life, attack obstacles, and maintain movement. Diligence is one of those qualities that is not very glamorous, after all it means “constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken; persistent exertion of body or mind.”
Benjamin Disraeli, who twice served as Prime Minister in Britain, said that “Diligence is the mother of good fortune.”
Samuel Johnson wrote that “If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”
And Antiphanes said that “Everything yields to diligence.”
King Solomon wrote that, “The hand of the diligent shall rule, but the slack hand tendeth to poverty.” (Proverbs 12:24)
Diligence encompasses five critical elements.
- Judgment, the capacity to take seriously who you are and what you are doing, to understand that both the mantle of leadership you bear and the things you do while wearing that mantle have implications far beyond the immediate and the evident. As obvious as that may sound, not everybody gets it. Some work at their play but play at their work. Diligent leaders don’t. I mean, they may play hard, but they work harder. (Yes, there are pitfalls and I’ll deal with them later.) Those diligent men and women who succeed and reach the superlative level take their responsibilities seriously while not taking themselves too seriously.
- Care, to prove that you believe in what you are doing and that it is worthy of your highest attention and most sincere effort. Some leaders are uncomfortable with their title or their position, feeling somehow unworthy even if but slightly. Diligence is a quality that disproves any doubt. True enough, hard work can sometimes become a compensating device for someone who is trying to hide something, but that is, in the major scheme of things, the negative case. The overwhelming majority of leaders and all the superlative ones are people who care about what they are doing and those they are doing it for and with. But there it yet another layer of meaning for this element. I referred to it in the quote in the graphic that accompanies this article. Your highest attention goes to not only what you do, but those people and tools with which you work. Diligent people are people who attend to the details. Most leaders are big picture people. Superlative leaders are big picture and little detail people, too.
- Prudence, the capacity that tempers foolhardiness. This is actually one of the 16 qualities and I will write in much greater detail later. Prudence looks forward and backward. I’ll save the forward look for later. The backward look means that a prudent person will not give up ground gained. It came at a great price and it would be foolhardy to readily chuck it all in. General George Patton, of whom I will write in this quality later, held to the philosophy to never fall back and regroup. He didn’t, as he said, want to pay for the same real estate twice.
- Determination, to lock in to the objective and never quit. This was my father’s philosophy – never give up. Diligent people don’t. Firmness of purpose, commitment to a cause in which you believe manifest diligence. There is something inspiring about someone who just won’t quit.
- Activity, being busy about the appropriate things. Diligence, like every other quality is always active, never passive. Bureaucrats, who seldom if ever reach a level we would call superlative, love busyness. Give them a meeting to attend and a report to write about the meeting they attended and then schedule another meeting to discuss the report that they wrote about the first meeting and they feel they’ve had a successful month. Superlative leaders like Mr. Carnegie love business. They are not active for its own sake; they are active on for the sake of something greater, more compelling, more completely worthwhile.
Diligence is not just hard work. It is hard work with an attitude, for a reason. The hand of the diligent shall what?
Recognizable and productive leadership awaits and the price is more than worth it.