A personal leadership lesson from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In year 11, the principal of my school took over our English class for a term. The text was romantic poetry and one poet in particular: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At first sight, to a teenage boy who spent inappropriate amounts of time playing video games, rugby and rock-climbing, Coleridge ranked right up there with dentistry and other forms of personal hygiene in general.
When I was 16, I thought the lesson in this story was just something I was obliged to politely endure before moving on to better, more relevant, more exciting things. Later on, I realised something quite the contrary...
When we started work on Coleridge’s longest poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner we discovered this teacher was able to wield powers just like the protagonist of the story:
“He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.”
The Rime is a great story, about youth, about wisdom in leading others, but is not about the wisdom of success, it is about the other leadership wisdom: the one that comes from failure.
The Mariner tells the story of his last ill-fated voyage as captain of a sailing ship. The voyage is epic. The ship sails over the equator and blown south by a storm to the Antarctic where the crew befriends a talisman of good luck, an Albatross. The bird leads them out of a maze of icebergs and into a mist. It is in this moment the Mariner makes a mistake that so haunts him in the retelling, it unnerves his young listener:
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
At this point, the story takes a metaphysical turn. Right after the death of the bird, the fog lifts, the sun comes out, and the ship is underway, but alas, the Mariner’s rash mistake must be paid for. As Coleridge begins the horror of that payment, its first victim is the wind that drives the ship:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The crew, who initially praised his deed as the action that lifted the mist, turn on him.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
The Mariner’s followers brand him with his failure, and make him wear it for all to see. In the depth of the stories’ despair, the crew aren’t the only ones to notice. Death and it’s feminine mistress, a terrible ghost of Life-in-Death approach on a haunted ship and dice for the lives of the crew. Perhaps mercifully, Death wins the crew but their leader is claimed by a fate worse than death: to live on while surrounded by the consequence of his failure.
I wont spoil the ending if you don’t know the tale, but the heart of this story lies here: the Mariner’s failure does not kill him, but it certainly changes him forever.
Everyone with influence at some point gets it wrong. If life elevates you to the control of other people's destiny, just as they share in the spoils of your success, they will surely pay for your mistakes.
Even if you achieve redemption from your failings as a leader, you might find yourself compelled to talk about the experience. So many great leaders I know have made it their mission to induce the blissfully ignorant Wedding Guests who come across their path to not repeat their mistakes. These people are often initially regarded by their young audiences as inferior and weak, but if the story teller has a truly absorbed his or her lessons well, and is artful in the telling, their stories become irresistibly magnetic in their honesty.
The teacher that introduced me to this poem wore his albatrosses sadly but bravely, and I am thankful that he did. Like the Wedding Guest, his painfully bought wisdom is some of my most precious.
Along with all the glorious successes that we celebrate while we teach leadership, Halogen is committed to telling the less glorious but instructive lessons of failure. I am compelled by the stories of people I have followed, as well as my own leadership experience to do exactly that. If you have ever worn your own albatross, then I encourage you to do the same.
Mike Martin is the Executive Director of the Halogen Foundation. Facinated by leaders for as long as he can remember, Mike's main interest lies in the many ways in which individuals use influence to shape the lives around them.
Tweet @MikeAMartin or @halogenaus