Kipling’s wise words
By Stefan Stern
Published: April 28 2008 19:27 | Last updated: April 28 2008 19:27
A wise colleague once said: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you have probably failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.”
How bad are market conditions today? Should we be panicking or is it time to keep a cool head when all about you have lost the plot?
I cannot answer these questions for you. But we should, I think, be guided by the sobriety and realism of the words quoted above. Even if some economists have predicted all seven of the last three recessions, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong this time.
The bathos of the wise colleague’s words is attractive too. It is well-judged: a liberal (and sarcastic) response to the troubling jingoism many readers find in the work of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), author of the poem, If, to which he was referring.
Although Kipling was once wildly popular and an early winner (1907) of the Nobel prize for literature, he is controversial today. Many accuse him of being a racist and an imperialist. His talk of “the white man’s burden” and his portrayal of primitive “natives” being brought reluctantly to civilisation have caused, and continue to cause, great offence.
His admirers say his work is shot through with irony and that most of the expressions of white supremacy are spoken by fictitious characters, not the author himself. Kipling was more complicated than he looked. More than 100 years after they were written – and read in a different context – it is hard to be certain whether his words are always meant to be taken completely seriously:
“Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease.”
The words of If are another matter. It was voted Britain’s favourite poem in a BBC poll as recently as 1995. This may reflect badly on British popular taste – George Orwell labelled Kipling “a good bad poet” – but it also tells you that its message endures.
If is not exactly unproblematic. Orwell said it was popular with Colonel Blimps – reactionary, militaristic types – who were so surprised to find a poet on their side that they elevated his words to Biblical status.
But If should not be the exclusive property of the Blimps. It is not exactly the most beautiful poem in the English language – far from it. But at this tense moment in the business cycle, it is worth considering whether Kipling, even in his arch-19th century way, has something useful to tell us. The poem begins:
“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;”
This is not as crusty as it might sound. Recognising that people may doubt your ability to lead, for example, is not something observed in many chief executives. Kipling does not see it as a weakness to acknowledge the doubts that others may have. The second stanza opens:
“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;”
This is good advice too. And it applies to people working at all levels, not just lonely leaders. The lines about triumph and disaster are posted on the wall by the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s centre court. Successful sportspeople know not to take victory for granted. They are also good at bouncing back from the most severe disappointments. The final stanza begins:
“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;”
How very 2008. Today’s “authentic” leaders are happy to talk to anybody – investors, colleagues, subordinates – without putting on an act. They are themselves, in the boardroom and on the shopfloor. They are also, as Kipling writes, equally immune to flattery and unfair criticism.
If you can manage all this, and more, you will attain the highest accolade, Kipling says (warning – un-PC conclusion coming):
“You’ll be a Man, my son!”
I hope female readers do not feel excluded by this. If should be read as an equal opportunities poem.
Orwell was not a Kipling fan. “He dealt largely in platitudes, and, since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks,” he wrote. Well, yes and no. If may be platitudinous in places. But it is always worth another look.
“The mere existence of work of this kind, which is perceived by generation after generation to be vulgar and yet goes on being read, tells one something about the age we live in,” Orwell also said.
That is true too, but not really, I think, in the way that it was meant.
This column returns on May 13
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008