One Poem that Taught Me Everything About Leadership

Bear with me even if you’re not the type who enjoys reading poems. I was too. But, when I encountered the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, I was blown away. Absolutely mesmerized by the words and its profound meaning and inspiration.

Each of the poem’s sixteen couplets illustrates a leadership attribute, and they together provide a leadership framework on which the author Doug Morgan bases his book If You Will Lead: Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders, with one famous leader from history being chosen to exemplify each attribute.

The attributes are: character, authenticity, integrity, self-efficacy, ambition, vision, boldness, resilience, inspiration, courage, selflessness, stamina, composure, patience, enthusiasm and accountability. Several important leadership attributes are missing, for instance , empathy and judgment. Regardless, it’s still a remarkable list for godly leadership.

I won’t spoil the poem by infusing my own interpretation. Rather, here’s my challenge for you. Read out loud the poem and carefully observe the different leadership attributes listed above.

‘if’ by rudyard kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

[Note: Kipling is said to have written the poem ‘If’ with Dr Leander Starr Jameson in mind, who led about five-hundred of his countrymen in a failed raid against the Boers, in southern Africa. The ‘Jameson Raid’ was later considered a major factor in starting the Boer War (1899-1902).]

If you’d like to read a more in depth analysis of the poem from a leadership perspective read HERE.

I came across a recitation of the poem ‘IF’ by Sir Michael Caine. Click on the play button and close your eyes. Listen and immerse yourself in these words.

  • Beautiful and amazing, I love Sir Michael Caine’s interpretation! Make me feel like going out and being a man. It also inspires me to write more poetry!

  • Steven Tessler

    I used to write some pretty decent poems. They were pretty unique. The odd thing was that I wrote better poems when I was hurting.

    Haven’t written any in awhile.

  • That’s a really powerful poem. So glad you shared it. I see how I fall short and yet there’s hope of growth!

    As long as I have breath, I can grow, I have purpose for being here.

  • What a great poem! Thank you for sharing it. Powerful stuff.

  • Charles Akinropo Oloyede

    Thank you Paul for this revealing piece, God bless you!

  • RcMaFitness

    Excellent poem, & I mean excellent! Thank you Paul for your outstanding post, & I mean thank you!

  • David A. McCuistion

    Paul, great article and totally awesome poem. I listen to Michael Caine recite the poem on YouTube several times, read it a few more and make a list of 35 leadership traits in the poem that apply to many difference leadership situations, including Servant Leadership, which is my practice. Thank you.

  • Michael Fujimoto

    Thanks for posting the video to this poem too! Great post. Thank you!

  • David Kuyat

    Excellent poem. I wish we would give more credence to the wisdom from some of the giants of Western Literature. I am not saying that we should not keep a healthy balance. Even Kipling should be read in conjunction with some of the poets who reacted strongly against Kipling’s imperialism. Wilfred Owen reacts in his poignant poem, “Dulce et Decorum.” To get an idea of how insane this indoctrination into British imperialism could be, read one of Kipling’s Stalky & Co. stories about British schooling. I suggest “Regulus.”