Leadership : Poetic Reflections: On Being A Mountain

Dr. Phillip E. Jackson serves on active duty in the United States Navy as a board certified healthcare administrator. He has over 30 years of service. Dr. Jackson also teaches graduate level leadership and financial management courses for several major universities. He is a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives and has earned a doctorate of strategic leadership from the School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship, Regent University. Dr. Jackson has previously published articles on the importance of cultural competence in the health care environment. He currently resides in the Memphis, Tennessee metropolitan area.

In difficult times, a poem or quote can be a creative and therapeutic tool to assist leaders in their personal and professional journeys. A poem or quote can spark critical thinking, deeper awareness, and self-reflection. A poem or quote can also provide you with spiritual resources when facing moments of lonesomeness and crisis as a leader.

This article metaphorically considers the leader as a mountain. Sometimes, a mountain stands alone. A mountain must endure the seasons and range of climate conditions. At times, you and I must also stand alone and lean forward against the turbulence and seasonal contexts. Often, there are moments of crisis that usually do not lend themselves to democratic leadership processes. It is moments like these that I seek solace reading and reflecting on inspirational poems or quotes.  Such is the opportunity with the following poem written by William Stafford entitled “Silver Star” and quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The poem and quotes offer guidance and renewal for me. Take a moment, read and reflect, and refresh.

To be a mountain you have to climb alone

and accept all that rain and snow. You have to look

far away, when evening comes. If a forest

grows, you care; you stand there leaning against

the wind, waiting for someone with faith enough

to ask you to move. Great stones will tumble

against each other and gouge your sides. A storm

will live somewhere in your canyons hoarding its lightning.

If you are lucky, people will give you a dignified

name and bring crowds to admire how sturdy you are,

how long you can hold still for the camera. And some time,

they say, if you last long enough you will hear God;

a voice will roll down from the sky and all your patience

will be rewarded. The whole world will hear it: “Well done.”

Stafford poetically offers you and I the audacity to endure in times of crisis. Four introspective reflections are essential to being a sturdy mountain.

1.    Understand self first

Before you and I can lead others, we must first know how to lead ourselves. This has been the recipe for becoming an effective leader since the days of Socrates and Aristotle. "Know thyself" was the caption over the Oracle at Delphi, the Greek Mecca of wisdom. It is by this principle that the great leaders of the past, present, and future gain an effective discipleship and achieve their goals being a mountain. Leadership guru, Warren Bennis, notes, "Know thyself means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be." Basically, “understanding self first” offers a philosophical understanding of “who I am” and “how I am” — the summation of the formal and informal experiences of living. To be unambiguous, this awareness is not the outcome of simply having experiences, but deep, consistent and conscious reflection on those experiences and the lessons learned; both successes and failures. And sometimes, it is our failures that we learn from the most. I reflect on this quote by Emerson, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”

2.    Operate from a deep set of beliefs and values

Innermost to every leader is a unique amalgamation of beliefs and values. Leading innermost means leaders need to be consciously aware of the beliefs that drive their actions in the midst of the calm and the storm. Whether we lead hundreds or just ourselves, we each possess a set of beliefs that are central to who we are, essential to our functioning each day, enduring over time, and that distinguish us as a leader. To lead effectively from innermost, we must be mindful of the beliefs that drive our work ethic and decision making. Emerson offers a reflective thought about deep seated beliefs and value,

 “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

3.    Uncompromising values in times of crisis

If you and I are going to be tempted to compromise on our values, it is usually in times of storms living somewhere in our canyons hoarding its lightning. Consider for example, how most people hold Johnson and Johnson’s leadership up as the standard for how to effectively manage a crisis when cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules caused numerous deaths in the early 1980s. To this day, Johnson and Johnson rates as one of America’s top companies despite a crisis that could have adversely affected consumer trust and the organization’s long term viability.

However, contrast Johnson and Johnson’s corporate behavior with the negative view that still permeates Exxon fifteen years after an accident where the oil tanker Valdez gave rise to one of our country’s most extensive oil spills. Unlike the Tylenol crisis, no one died from the oil spill, but Exxon leadership was and is heavily criticized for both the accident and its handling of it. Consequently, and despite its undeniable success in the oil and gas industry, Exxon leadership suffered severe reputational damage.

The takeaway point is to not compromise on your core principles in times of uncertainty or crisis. Stand sturdy. 

4.    Demonstrate leadership tenacity

A leader that is a mountain is not afraid of adversity. A leader must be audacious with clear goals they intend to achieve no matter what stands before them. Emerson said it best, “I know of no such unquestionable badge and ensign of a sovereign mind as that of tenacity of purpose...”  That said; a leader requires thick skin. Not everyone is going to agree with you. You have to be able to withstand the ridicule you might receive.  While withstanding ridicule, we must also consider it to see if there are changes that might need to be made. However, considering such does not necessarily mean you have to reverse your stance. Again, Emerson put forwards sound advice,

 “Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”


I’ll conclude by saying a poem can offer you and I spiritual resources at times when other resources fall short. “So be that mountain.” By knowing “thyself,” operating from a set of deep beliefs and values, maintaining your values in times of crisis, and demonstrating leadership tenacity, you can be that mountain of sustainable leadership regardless of the seasons and climate conditions. Stafford teaches us that eventually the crowds will admire us and the whole world will hear it: “Well done.” Emerson gives us a similar perspective in this final quote,

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

A poem or quote can be creative and therapeutic spark to ignite personal reflection and critical thinking. Did you experience the spark?

Copyright 2009 Phillip E. Jackson

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