Boyd Matheson: President Nelson’s principled patterns for living — 96 years in the making

I have attended a lot of tributes, galas and events that honor legacies and life contribution of many great people. Too often, such gatherings devolve into a type of “This is your life” list of accomplishments, degrees, titles and awards. Then, at the end of the event, everyone else leaves feeling a little “less than” or in my case, convinced that I am indeed world’s “biggest loser.”

This past Sunday I experienced something completely and elevatingly different while observing President Russell M. Nelson’s family birthday Zoom celebration. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Nelson — who leads the 16 million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as its Prophet — connected via technology with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they commemorated and celebrated his 96th birthday. There were 276 participants in 61 different locations.

I have always found that you learn more about a person through observing their principles in action than you do through their resume. I witnessed principled patterns for living that literally were 96 years in the making. I left the online gathering inspired by principles and motivated to apply them.

Members of President Russell M. Nelson’s family participate in a virtual birthday party — via video conferencing — three days before his 96th birthday on Sunday Sept. 6, 2020. President Nelson turned 96 on Sept. 9, 2020.
Members of President Russell M. Nelson’s family participate in a virtual birthday party — via video conferencing — three days before his 96th birthday on Sunday Sept. 6, 2020. President Nelson turned 96 on Sept. 9, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Respect and Love

Before the Zoom call even began, it was decided that President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, should sit a little closer together — which they both welcomed with smiles. President Nelson snapped to his feet, helped adjust his wife’s chair and then stood until she was comfortably positioned and ready to play her role as host and moderator of the celebration. This was not merely old-fashion chivalry — it was much, much more than that — it was a deep and abiding respect and reverence that he holds for all people.

Read more: President Nelson’s family gathered virtually to celebrate his birthday and hear his hopes for them

President Nelson once said, “Ultimately, we realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women.” This principle, is shown in the love he demonstrates to his loved ones and the care he provides to friends and colleagues and his limitless compassion for the many around the world who love and look to him for leadership.

The principle of ‘we’: linking and locking arms

This world religious leader has traveled to many corners of the globe. He continually demonstrates respect and genuine love in the way he links and then locks arms with people. I have witnessed this principle in action as President Nelson has interacted with heads of state, leaders of major religious organizations, business executives, young missionaries, grieving families and little children. His side-by-side approach to leading people is a wonder. He first gently links arms by sliding his arm in, then locks arms in a signal that “we are in this together.”

One colleague noted that this linking and locking of arms is not a casual thing. “If you aren’t ready, he may pull your shoulder out of socket as he pulls you in.”

President Nelson’s leadership principle is contrary to the many today who strive to put themselves on a pedestal, elevate their own importance or strive to win-over rather than win-with people. The only time President Nelson has not used this linking of arms leadership principle, that I have seen, is when he has dropped to his knees, like no 96 year-old ever, to scoop up the children into his loving and caring arms.


After his posterity had paid tribute to him in poetry, song, skits, videos, shared memories and well wishes, it was President Nelson’s turn to speak. He spoke of principled patterns for living — including “building character – rather than being one.”

He said, “A person of good character is obedient to the laws of God and the laws of man. I confess to you that on occasion I’m up at three o’clock in the morning. I like to look out of our upper-story window at the street down below.”

President Nelson described seeing a car stopped, and patiently waiting, at a red light at 3 a.m. with no other cars or law enforcement in sight.

He continued, “Even when no one else is around that driver is obedient. Such self-control and obedience to law are necessary and essential to freedom in society.” To President Nelson, obedience is a demonstration of the principle of character.

Lessons in light and leaning into what is next

Sister Nelson used the song “You light of my life,” to share the many ways President Nelson, “lights up her life,” and the lives of countless others. She said, “You light up my life with the JOY you have for each new day — and especially the next. You’re always looking to the future!”

Sister Nelson illustrated President Nelson living the principle of next saying, “Only two days after a major event, someone thanked you for the powerful talk you had delivered at that event. When the person left, you turned to me and said, ‘That’s ancient history!’ I love that you are always eager to know the next thing the Lord would have you do.”

Humility to continuously learn

Humility plays a vital role in perpetual learning. President Nelson was recently described by someone who has worked with him for many years, as both the smartest AND the most humble person they had ever met. Another of his colleagues commented that they had never heard President Nelson ever say that “He knew something.”

Sister Wendy Nelson and President Russell M. Nelson participate in a virtual birthday celebration.
Sister Wendy Nelson and President Russell M. Nelson participate in a virtual birthday celebration. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

We have all had the experience of a colleague or friend telling us something we already knew, saw or read. We are often so eager to show how smart, knowledgeable or connected we are that we jump in with our take on the topic. President Nelson always lets the person finish. He resists the natural urge to interrupt and say, “I know that.” He then humbly extends the conversation with what I think is the real art — the art of the secondary question. And his learning, and teaching, continue.

Sister Nelson included another observation of a patterned principle when she shared, “YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE with your resiliency. When an obstacle occurs that stops progress on a crucial project that the Church is undertaking — you will quickly say something like: ‘Oh we knew something like this would happen. There has to be opposition to everything that is good.’” Applying the principle of resiliency has been part of a vital pattern of living, thriving, learning, innovating and succeeding for 96 years.

During the birthday celebration no one documented the numerous awards, degrees, accomplishments, titles or recognition. Perhaps that is because President Nelson not only learned principled patterns for living for himself over the course of his now 96 years — he also taught them to his posterity in the humble way he has lived them. 

President Nelson has no need for an attention-grabbing, awe-inducing resume — his principles, and how he lives, tell a most extraordinary story that can inspire, drive, shape and empower the rest of us to discover and do the same.