Let me tell you a story and then let me apply this story to your leadership. Forgive me that I’m going to go a bit long in this Leading Thoughts.
As most of us know, Senator John McCain was a Navy pilot who flew combat missions during the Vietnam war. In 1967, he was shot down, captured, and held as a POW for five and a half harrowing years.
There is a less well-known part of the story that moves me. As a boy, McCain had served as an altar boy in his parents’ Episcopal churches. This meant that he absorbed the language of the Episcopal liturgy. He knew the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, large portions of scripture, and the lyrics of dozens of hymns. He had heard them so many times, they simply became part of him.
When he found himself chained in that North Vietnamese POW camp, the words from those dozens of religious services came back to him. He found comfort in them. He quoted the scriptures and creeds and sang the hymns. He taught these words to his fellow POWs. Over time, he became the closest thing to a chaplain those prisoners had ever known. Decades later, all who survived those torturous years recalled McCain’s leadership, and most said that it was his spiritual leadership that helped them survive.
This was all possible because John McCain had allowed the words of Christian lore to live vibrantly within him.
There is a leadership lesson in this for us. We live in an age of data and stats, of memes and short phrases that make the rounds. Most leaders quote the latest five words from the latest leadership book and feel great about having mastered some truth. Yet what might it mean for these leaders—for you—if you allowed larger and moving portions of literature and poetry to live in you? What if you could offer inspiring, powerful words to your team and not just in a few phrases but in vast paragraphs? In fact, how might such words change you whether you ever spoke them or not?
I once heard a general quote the entire poem, “The Road Not Taken,” at a critical meeting. His listeners were transfixed, the meeting elevated. I have watched coaches suddenly break into “The Agincourt Speech” from Shakespeare’s Henry V and seen tears streaming down the cheeks of the manliest of men. Games were won as a result. Men excelled. And, of course, I have heard just the right bit of scripture spoken at just the right moment and watched it have just the right effect. But someone had to make those words their own first.
I’ve even done it myself. In college I memorized words from The Iliad and when my team and I were making a decision years later, I let fly.
He who fights,
And will not run,
Is sure to see another sun.
But he who runs,
And will not fight,
Is sure to die,
And it serves him right.
Those words at that moment moved us all and gave us wisdom for our challenges.
Now, I’m not suggesting you become a poetry-spouting weirdo, ever sounding off at inappropriate times. I am suggesting you let great words live in you, and not just in bits and phrases. Then, I’m suggesting you use what has been meaningful to you when it might be meaningful to others.
Churchill did this. He had memorized a thousand lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. You can be sure his cabinet, his driver, his wife, and the British people heard bits of them often. Portions are even quoted in the movie “Darkest Hour” because they were so associated with the greatness of the man.