Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—From Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Leadership is an ideal. We can approach it, but never achieve the perfection it demands, because we are human beings, flawed, fractious, and fallible. Leadership is like poetry, imaginative, illuminating, and inspirational, always seeking the transcendental realities of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is no coincidence that a world that has turned its face away from poetry is a world plagued by the loss of leadership in homes, schools, workplaces, communities, and nations.
The great poets, from the mists of antiquity to the turmoil of our own times, furnish incandescent insights into the human condition, fanning the flame of leadership that is ineradicable in every human heart. Poetry expresses truths inexpressible in the prosaic factoids and formulae of postmodernity’s mechanical mindset. As Plato told us: “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
—Czeslaw Milosz in Dedication
Experiencing the brutal regimes of both the Nazis and the Soviets, Czeslaw Milosz created some of the 20th century’s finest poetry, earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Exploring ethics, politics, history, and faith, his verse influenced several generations of poets in both East and West, and inspired the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in Poland, providing a model for the poet as socio-political visionary.
Inflamed by the words of a master poet, even a moderate talent can give evocative expression to the dynamics of leadership:
Behold the selfless striving for the Good,
Intent upon the flourishing of all;
Imbued with wisdom, practical and bold,
Courageous and alert to every call
Of justice, and the touch of tempered steel,
The reasoned cultivation of the whole,
You stand on truth and dare to know the real,
The raw potential and the visioned goal,
And gifting people standards from above,
You lift their hearts in faith, and hope, and love.
–Anna, Edith, Sophie by Andre van Heerden
Edification from ageless poetry bears lessons both subtle and severe for those who would shoulder the burden of leadership. Homer’s Iliad, the formative epic of the Western Canon, unveils the tragic view of life that recognises human limitation and the inevitability of suffering. Hector knows that Troy is doomed, but remains resolute in doing what duty and virtue demand.
Life is hard, but once we come to grips with the reality, it ceases to be the burden that it is for people who hold the opposite, utopian, belief that life is meant to be easy.
The tragic view enables one to embrace the adventure of challenge and adversity, helping us to grow and fulfil our true potential. Setting high goals and standards – informed by truth, goodness, and beauty – and striving to achieve them, lays the very foundations of human flourishing and achievement.
For in my heart and soul I know this well:
A day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear;
Even so it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come
That weighs me down, not even of Hecuba herself,
Or King Priam, or the thought that my own brothers,
In all their numbers, in all their gallant courage,
May tumble in the dust, crushed by enemies –
That is nothing, nothing beside your agony,
When some brazen Argive hauls you off in tears,
Wrenching away your day of light and freedom.
—Hector to Andromache in Homer’s Iliad Book VI (tr. Robert Fagles)
The great English poet, W.H. Auden, once observed, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” And there are very few things that are more human than mixed feelings. In Virgil’s epic, Aeneid, the hero struggles with a dilemma that has tormented leaders throughout history: having escaped the destruction of Troy, he allows himself to be diverted from his vision of founding a new Trojan state in Italy by an overheated love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage. Though for obvious reasons it is all too often the case, sexual and/or romantic liaisons are not the only diversions that ambush leaders in mid-quest, particularly in an age that, in the words of T S Eliot, is “distracted from distraction by distraction”.
The pious prince was seiz’d with sudden fear;
Mute was his tongue, and upright stood his hair.
Revolving in his mind the stern command,
He longs to fly, and loathes the charming land.
What should he say? Or how should he begin?
What course, alas! remains to steer between
Th’ offended lover and the pow’rful queen?
This way and that he turns his anxious mind,
And all expedients tries, and none can find.
Fix’d on the deed, but doubtful of the means,
After long thought, to this advice he leans:
Three chiefs he calls, commands them to repair
The fleet, and ship their men with silent care;
Some plausible pretense he bids them find,
To color what in secret he design’d.
Himself, meantime, the softest hours would choose,
Before the love-sick lady heard the news;
And move her tender mind, by slow degrees,
To suffer what the sov’reign pow’r decrees:
Jove will inspire him, when, and what to say.
—Aeneid Book IV (tr. John Dryden)