Henry Kissinger

Is This the Best You Can Do?

Early in my career, I worked in Washington D.C. in various political roles, including at what is now known as the Department of Homeland Security. That gives me a reason to say I worked in the trash business twice — in the waste & recycling business and in public policy.  

While the waste and recycling business is tough, working in public policy in Washington can be brutal. You face tough challenges every day and deal with some of the most demanding bosses around; people who are strict, ruthless, and laser-focused.  

One of the most demanding leaders to ever work in Washington was Dr. Henry Kissinger. Dr. Kissinger was the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. He was a legendary figure, renowned for his approaches to such complicated foreign relations challenges as the Vietnam War, embracing relations with Communist China, and dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. On top of all of that, he was notoriously hard-to-please.  

There is a story that goes around Washington about Dr. Kissinger and his speechwriter, Winston Lord. Lord was Kissinger’s special assistant and would go on to serve as Ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State at the United States Department of State. As the story goes, one day, Dr. Kissinger asked Ambassador Lord to write a speech. No easy task because Dr. Kissinger was himself a speechwriter, and as mentioned, a pretty tough boss to please. That being said, speech writing was Ambassador Lord’s job, so Lord says, “Okay,” and he goes off to write a speech for Dr. Kissinger.  

Ambassador Lord drafts the speech. He thinks it is pretty good, so he brings it back to Dr. Kissinger. Dr. Kissinger takes one look at the speech, and he says, “Is this the best you can do?”. 

Ambassador Lord is surprised. He thought he had done an excellent job, but here is Dr. Kissinger saying, “Is this the best you can do?”. 

“Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again," Ambassador Lord says.   

So he takes the speech back, and he goes to work on it. He moves some words around here, revises a few words there, and a few days later, he comes back to Dr. Kissinger with a second draft of the speech. Dr. Kissinger takes one look and says, “Are you sure this is the best you can do?”. 

Ambassador Lord is dumbfounded. He had worked on this revised speech for days, putting every word in just the right place, but now Dr. Kissinger is saying again, “Is this the best you can do?” 

“Well, I thought so,” Ambassador Lord says. “I’ll try one more time.” So Ambassador Lord takes the speech back, and he goes to work again. And again. And again.  

Eight times Ambassador Lord brings Dr. Kissinger a new draft, and eight times Dr. Kissinger takes one look and asks, “Is this the best you can do?”   

Ambassador Lord finally returns with a ninth draft. He is sure that this time he has cracked it. So he hands the speech to Dr. Kissinger, and again Dr. Kissinger asks, “Is this the best you can do?”. 

Ambassador Lord is beside himself. He practically screams at Dr. Kissinger, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out — this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word!”. 

Dr. Kissinger calmly replies, “In that case, now I’ll read it”.

I like this story because it reminds me of the importance of having confidence in what you do and taking the time and care to deliver your best work the first time, every time.  

While it is safe to say few of us will ever work for a boss as demanding as Henry Kissinger, we all choose to give our best or do “just enough.” The difference is in the attitude we bring with us to work, our confidence in our abilities, and whether we want to succeed or simply get by.  

Those who give their best will go the extra distance, get the job, make the sale, close the deal, and be remembered. Those of us who can say, “Yes, this is the best I can do,” I truly believe, will change the world.  

At Rubicon, we are changing the world. We are reimagining the waste and recycling business, reframing the climate debate, and moving the planet off of the landfill model at scale. None of this happens if we are not bringing our A-game every day. 

So I challenge all of the great people I work with, and all of you reading this, to ask yourself every day, “Is this the best I can do?” If it is not, then why? Only when you are pushing yourself to give your very best will you see what you can truly achieve.

*This story is based on Leading with Questions "Is This the Best You Can Do?"

**Rubicon Founder & CEO Nate Morris will be interviewing Ambassador Winston Lord for an upcoming "All-Hands" meeting.

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