“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
- Ernest Hemmingway’s response to the challenge of writing a six word story.

As I’ve delved into the worlds of non-profit work and political aspiration one common thread seems to join them — both are driven by extremely passionate people. I count myself among those focused leaders that firmly beleive in the work they are doing. Unfortunately, I also count myself among those whose passion for an issue leads to a verbosity that only dilutes the real message of my passion. In short, I kill the very issue that I care most about by blabbing on and on about it.

A little over on month ago I encountered a July article in the Havard Business Review online by John Baldoni, “Sum Up Your Leadership in Six Words“. The point that he and others make is that taking the time to reduce what you are fundamentally about is difficult (at best), but the effort can help you to find the focus you need for successful dissemination of your message, of who you are and what mean to do. As Baldoni reports:

Peggy Noonan, once told President John Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence.” Noonan writes that Lincoln’s life could be summed up as “He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.

Great, But Does It Work?

OK, so this is all nice to think about but how does it work in practice? I wanted to find out myself so I put the 15 Kellogg Fellows that are part of the Forum 11 planning team to the test. Their challenge: Give me the 6 words that explain your involvement or passion in civic engagement. Here are their six (or more) words:

Educate community, collective empowerment, shared impact.”

“Together we can change the world.”

“People owning, people doing, public work.”

“Never for forget the 'public’ in public policy.”

“Engaging those not heard, now heard.”

“Be a thermostat, not (just) a thermometer.”

“Risk, voice, action, results, justice.”

“Working for a common good.”

“Social problems are also one’s own.”

“Everyone has a voice and a vote.”

“Recovering the lost & disenfranchised, giving them voice.”

“Courage, perseverance, well-meaning, goal driven, free and happy.”

“Participation, active, positive change, connectivity, representative government, progressive agenda.”

“Perseverance, balance, wisdom, quality values, social capital leverage.”

In the end, I find it to be a very powerful exercise. As these quick answers show you, there is still room for word-smithing but core idea is there. I’m also not afraid to report that a number of the cards had sentences scrawled that never made it to the final cut because they weren’t sharp enough or mis-represented the fundamental reason the Fellow was engaged in civic participation.

Based on this exercise, the team eventually developed their own initial guiding statement for Forum 11:

Courageous choices in the quest for a more perfect union through civic engagement.