Invictus – William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
At 12 years of age, William Ernest Henley contracted tuberculosis of the bone. A few years later, at 17, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians determined that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee, which they did. When he was 26, Henley’s strong internal strength and his sense of purpose and resolve inspired him to write this short poem, Invictus. Despite his disability, he survived (with the other foot intact) and led an active life until his death at 53.
This poem has been the source of much inspired thinking and quotation since its publication in 1875. Characters as remarkable and diverse as Aung San Suu Kyi, Andre Agassi and Franklin D Roosevelt have invoked the poem. Nelson Mandela found strength from this poem during his own incarceration and he used it to inspire his fellow prisoners at Robben Island and later his beloved Springboks to go on and win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was even cited by Claude Rains, who played Captain Renault in the 1942 film Casablanca, to his friend Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Invictus is a simple poem that speaks to all of us. And it has a special relevance to those in the HR profession who, like Captain Renault, not only find the need to draw strength from within themselves when all seems to be going pear-shaped on the job, but also when there is a need to support close work colleagues who are feeling under the pump.
At the end of the day, we all want to be cared about, and have a strong desire to seek out others who have faced the same trials. Invictus has been a great connection or parable with those searching for others to share such experiences.
In a related way, the renowned leadership author, George Kohlrieser, has written at length on the ‘caring’ paradox in his books Hostage at the Table, and Care to Dare. Kohlrieser is now a professor at IMD in Switzerland, but was a former hostage negotiator, and was twice taken hostage during his professional career in negotiation. Based on two applied experiences with a knife at his throat, his thesis is that the key to negotiating successfully with the hostage-taker is to create a sense of being cared for as a person. If you are able to do this, then surrender and good sense are more likely to follow. Kohlrieser should know, as he is still with us.
The same logic applies to the workplace. If we are able to create a culture and an environment where people feel genuinely cared for, they will work harder, more happily, and be more fully engaged. Of significant importance, too, they will be inspired to make sensible innovations around the inherent risks and challenges they face. Caring links to daring, argues Kohlrieser. And most business leaders under pressure can struggle with this at times when the temptation to impose controls and clamps seems greater, but when others actually need encouragement and a stronger sense of being bonded with and cared for. It is possible to get temporarily high performance from threats and negative pressure, but it is never sustainable because workers won’t trust those who threaten them.
As human beings and workers, most of our happiest and most painful memories involve social relationships with others. Social pain can trigger areas of the brain that encourage isolation at a time when we need greater connection. This is a constant challenge in our profession, as we become aware of stressful times when our people and organisations are tempted to go to ground and retreat – fuelled by a sense of loss, not a desire to be positive – and to push forward as best we can to seek a communal benefit.
At such times, the HR practitioner often needs counter-intuitive inspiration, and to push back against the retreatful thinking and threats of others. Reach for Invictus, when you need to. Care to dare when that feels like the hardest thing to do, and your work experiences and relationships will most likely be enhanced.