There is no better leadership training than reading about the life of great men. Recently I picked up President Henry B. Eyring’s biography and was encompassed by his integrity, his spirituality, and his humility. I was a bit intimidated by the girth of the book but was soon surprised how quickly the pages turned.
As I read biographies, certain details always capture my attention. Details that are worth applying to my own life as much as I can. I’d like to share a few with you. Here are 5 inspiring lessons I learned from the life of President Eyring.
1. Seek the Lord’s Guidance in All Things
Just like in any life, Hal Eyring had to make difficult life changing decisions. From his choice to leave a prestigious position at Stanford University and move his family to Rexburg, Idaho to preside over Ricks College, to the decision to turn down high paying secular opportunities. He seemed to always consult the Lord in detail to what he should do next. This may seem like an obvious principle we learn in primary, but to read about it over and over in his life was inspiring. It made me step back and consider the detailed decisions I am leaving out of my daily prayers. President Eyring truly followed the advice to “counsel with the Lord in all they doings.”
2. Take Time to Visit Those You Lead
In leadership there is nothing more powerful than a one-to-one visit. I would imagine being a college president doesn’t leave much time to wander the campus looking for people to talk with–Hal Eyring made the time.
After a morning of meetings and interviews in my office, I moved out into the campus to meet with people on the campus. At noon I had lunch with two faculty members and one student who came to the open meeting. Then, I spent an hour with Brother Garrett Case and his people in the bookstore. Another hour with a man who runs our post office… For the rest of the afternoon I spent much of the time crawling under, on, and over the boilers in the heating plant and the rest visiting with Brother Elmo Dial, the supervisor. It’s not clear to me yet what I was to accomplish. I prayed that I might know and stayed long in each location, waiting for some direction for how I should direct the conversation. While I felt peace and reassurance in the visits and still intend to continue them, I cannot yet see the end nor exactly how to do it. But I do feel both the interest in what people do and a concern for their feelings were part of what is intended to help the people I visit. (I Will Lead You Along, p.249)
Put the reports and busy work to the side and go visit your people. They will remember the visits long after they forget how well you ran a meeting.
3. Learn As a Counselor
When Elder Eyring was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1995 he had worked closely with the majority of the other eleven apostles. Many years prior he was called as president of Ricks College by Elder Neal A. Maxwell (then Commissioner of Church Education). He had been the president of Ricks College at the same time Elder Oaks was president of Brigham Young University. He was Elder Hollands right hand man as Deputy Commissioner of Church Education. And, of course, he was first counselor to Bishop Robert D. Hales in the presiding bishopric in the late 80’s. Not to mention the other casual and professional encounters he had with the other brethren.
The point being, he had a front row seat to some of the greatest leaders at the time. He was able to counsel with them, observe their decision making, and be corrected by them. By the time he became President Eyring in the First Presidency he had no problem leading, and most importantly, no problem counseling.
4. How to Write a Talk
The humility Bishop Eyring showed when he was first given the task to speak in General Conference was inspiring. He showed his humanness as he struggled with such assignments but was blessed time after time from the Lord with specific messages to give. He gave many examples of speaking about a topic that didn’t seem fit with the meeting in which it was delivered, but later found out it was inspired direction.
These examples encourage me to be more patient with inspiration as I speak as a priesthood leader; to seek deeper instruction on what the Lord would have me say rather than what makes an engaging topic.
5. Look for Examples of Great Leadership
In the past I have shared stories of leaders in the church teaching junior leaders priceless principles of leadership. I’d like to share 7 stories from the book where a senior leader taught President Eyring a solid leadership principle.
President Eyring is the nephew to President Spencer W. Kimball. Throughout his life he had interaction with him that taught him many valuable lessons in leadership:
I learned a long time ago that it is hard to know how you are doing in being born again and why it is not easy. Once, as a bishop of a ward, I worked with a young man not much older than many of you. He’d made great mistakes and had been moved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to make long and painful repentance. We were down to the weeks before he was to be married in the temple. I had long before forgiven him in the name of the Church and had given him his temple recommend. Yet he remembered that I had said, “The Lord will forgive you in his own time and in his own way.” But now he was deeply concerned. He came to my office and he said: “You told me that the Lord would someday let me know that I was forgiven. But I am going to the temple to marry a wonderful girl. I want to be the best I can be for her. I need to know that I am forgiven. And I need to know now. Tell me how to find out.” I said I would try.
He gave me a deadline. My memory is that it was within less than two weeks. Fortunately, I already had a trip scheduled. During that period of time I went to Salt Lake City, and there I found myself seeing Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, at a social function. It was crowded, and yet he somehow found me. He walked up to me in that crowd and said, “Hal, I understand that you are now a bishop. Do you have anything you would like to ask me?”
I said that I did, but I didn’t think that was the place to talk about it. He thought it was. It was an outdoor party. My memory is that we went behind a shrub and there had our interview. Without breaking confidences, as I have not with you, I outlined the concerns and the question of this young man in my ward. Then I asked Elder Kimball, “How can he get that revelation? How can he know whether his sins are remitted?”
I thought Elder Kimball would talk to me about fasting or prayer or listening for the still small voice. But he surprised me. Instead he said, “Tell me something about the young man.”
I said, “What would you like to know?”
And then he began a series of the most simple questions. Some of the ones I remember were:
“Does he come to his priesthood meetings?”
I said, after a moment of thought, “Yes.”
“Does he come early?”
“Does he sit down front?”
I thought for a moment and then realized, to my amazement, that he did.
“Does he home teach?”
“Does he go early in the month?”
“Yes, he does.”
“Does he go more than once?”
I can’t remember the other questions. But they were all like that—little things, simple acts of obedience, of submission. And for each question I was surprised that my answer was always yes. Yes, he wasn’t just at all his meetings: he was early; he was smiling; he was there not only with his whole heart, but with the broken heart of a little child, as he was every time the Lord asked anything of him. And after I had said yes to each of his questions, Elder Kimball looked at me, paused, and then very quietly said, “There is your revelation.”
Sufficiently humble. Stripped of pride. Stripped of envy. Never making a mock of his brother.
When I went back to the young man and told him what I then knew, he accepted it. But he may have simply had to take my word for it. You see, it’s hard to feel that you are sufficiently humble. If you did, you might not be. He went forward with his marriage. I’ve seen him since. To me he still looks as he did on the front bench before a priesthood meeting.
(This story was originally shared in a BYU Fireside in 1989)
Another Lesson From Uncle/Elder Spencer W. Kimball:
Hal sensed the value and the privilege of serving as a bishop of the Stanford Ward throughout a term that ultimately ran to four years. He was a bit surprised when a release didn’t come in 1970, after what he thought was the standard three-year term for bishops of young single adult wards. His uncle Spencer Kimball, however, disabused him of that expectation. During a conversation at a family gathering in Utah, Hal casually mentioned his mixed feelings about coming to the end of his time. Elder Kimball dismissively replied, “Who told you there was a time limit?” A few months later, President Sonne asked Hal if he would be willing to serve for a fourth year; he happily agreed to do so. (I Will Lead You Along, p. 154)
In the biography the story is shared about a strong lesson President Eyring received from President Harold B. Lee. Below is the same story when he told it in a BYU Fireside in 1990:
Elder Neal A. Maxwell was then the commissioner of education. I told him I didn’t think I could do it without the help of heaven. He asked if I would like a blessing. I’ve forgotten how it was arranged that I would see Elder Alvin R. Dyer. That was especially pleasant for me, since I had been a priest once in a ward where he was the bishop, the president of my quorum. He listened sympathetically to my story, put his hands on my head, and gave me a blessing that included words like this as a promise: “In this assignment, and in many others which will come to you, your mind will be guided in channels toward the truth.” That blessing gave me confidence, maybe too much confidence. The committee began its work. And after months of what seemed to me futile effort, I felt some desperation, much as you do when heaven seems to withhold its help in a task you know matters and is beyond you.
I somehow managed to arrange another interview. This one was with President Harold B. Lee. He received me in a kindly way. In my anxiety, I soon blurted out my question: “President Lee, how do I get revelation?”
He smiled. I am glad he didn’t laugh, since it was an odd question to ask. But he answered my question with a story. It was essentially this. He said that during World War II he had been part of a group studying the question “What should the Church be doing for its members in the military service?” He said they conducted interviews at bases up and down the country. They had data gathered. They had the data analyzed. They went back for more interviews. But still, no plan emerged.
Then he gave me the lesson, which I now give to you, in about these words: “Hal, when we had done all we knew how to do, when we had our backs to the wall, then God gave us the revelation. Hal, if you want to get revelation, do your homework.”
This next story was directly from the journal of President Eyring. He shares of a time President Harold B. Lee visited Ricks College in 1973. It’s one of my favorites:
After we ate, President Lee began to speak. It was about 1:30. He knew we had a two o’clock devotional to get to, but he talked for thirty minutes, saying, “I’m sure they won’t go on without me.” He spoke with power, emotion, and informality that I cannot recreate on this page. He spoke of his own calling, saying, “If you think Satan doesn’t try to tempt the prophet, you’re wrong. I’m his prime target on earth.” He also said that he isn’t elected every two or four years, but every morning. And only one vote would be needed to defeat him: the Savior’s. He also said, at another point, that “We’ve never seen the hand of revelation rest any more clearly upon us than in the selection of your president, President Eyring.”After talking of some of the circumstances of my call, he talked about the importance of not thinking about whether you have achieved “high” station in the Church or about moving to “low” position. He said that it’s always moving to a higher position when the Lord directs. (I Will Lead You Along p. 257)
President Packer became a great mentor to Elder Eyring as the junior apostle. Here’s a story of Elder Eyring being taught how to be an effective general authority:
After each meeting, President Packer assessed Hal’s performance. He reminded Hal that he now spoke not only for the Church but to all of its individual members, many of whom knew no English and had little formal education. In this new position, any worldly eloquence or the slightest desire to impress would block communication with both the Spirit and the hearers. President Packer also reminded Hal that an Apostle must be capable of speaking not only in the gentle, storytelling style he tended to favor but also in the direct, leave-no-doubt manner of Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and Jeremiah. (I Will Lead You Along p. 431)
Final advice from his long-time supervisor:
A few weeks before his passing, Elder Maxwell invited Hal to his home for a final interview. Neal offered counsel for Hal’s future service, delivering a message at once complimentary, gentle, and trenchant. Neal said, “Hal, you have a great mind and a gift for perceiving risks. But if you’re going to reach your full potential to contribute in the kingdom, you’re going to have to become as good at seeing possibilities as you are at seeing pitfalls. We need you to be a problem solver, not just a problem spotter.” (I Will Lead You Along p. 452)
Being worthy to serve from President Faust:
Several weeks after his call to the Twelve, in the April general conference of 1995, Hal received an invitation to visit President Faust, who had been called into the First Presidency in the same conference. They met in the Second Counselor’s office, a spacious, high-ceiling corner room on the first floor of the Church Administration Building.“Hal,” President Faust began, “I’ve been watching you. You’ve seemed sober lately.” He continued tenderly, “has it happened yet? Are you doubting your worthiness to serve?”In fact, Hal had been feeling overwhelmed with the weight of his new assignment, so much so that he had began to doubt his worthiness. He was touched that his friend and mentor had noticed, and his hopes swelled at the prospect of confessing his doubts. But as he leaned forward eagerly, President Faust held up a hand to stop him. Pointing a finger toward the ceiling, he said, solemnly, “Don’t ask me if you’re worthy; ask Him.” (I Will Lead You Along p. 459)