Leadership lessons for CIO and IT executives from Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If-" by Doug Moran, author of If You will Lead.

Doug MoranGreat leaders understand that leadership is a vocation that requires hard work and dedication. My grandfather understood this. He lived by the motto, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” When I was a boy, my mother introduced me to his favorite poem, “If—,” by Rudyard Kipling. It has come to form the foundation of my approach to leadership. The poem’s words have helped me begin to unravel the complexities and challenges of leadership.


While Kipling wrote “If—” to celebrate the exploits of an overzealous British colonial leader, he published it as a guide for young men at the turn of the twentieth century. He intended to help them become better men and better leaders. His poem and his guidance described a perfection that was unattainable, and young men who were frustrated by the incredibly high bar that he had set for them often accosted Kipling. His words present today’s leaders—men and women, young and old—with the same unattainable perfection.

But leadership is not about attaining perfection. It is about knowing who we are and what we believe. It is about seeing things that others can’t or won’t see. It is about motivating others to attempt things they thought were impossible. It is about having a dream and working to attain it. The most important lesson the poem teaches is that one should have the boldness and courage to step up and lead. Kipling’s words remain powerful and his wisdom enduring:

Rudyard Kipling’s “If—”

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 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!
 

Awareness, Choice, and the “If” Sixteen

if you will lead moranSo, what leadership advice could a twenty-first-century CIO possibly get—or want—from a hundred-year-old poem written by a poet who is most remembered for his children’s stories? What can a modern age IT executive learn from a Victorian poem?

“If—” describes a path we may choose to follow to become better leaders. Each of the poem’s sixteen couplets describes an essential leadership attribute. By incorporating the concept of “awareness and choice,” they form a comprehensive leadership structure, which I call the “If” Sixteen Leadership Framework.

The “If” Sixteen Leadership Attributes help us answer four questions that define each of us as leaders:

• Who am I, and what do I believe?
• What do I want?
• How will I attract and motivate others?
• How will I earn and retain the privilege to lead?

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