Every now and then I stumble upon a gem of literature that truly inspires me. My most recent discovery is the poem Ithaka by C.V. Cafafy. Written in 1911, Cavafy was inspired to write Ithaka by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem’s theme is that enjoyment of the journey of life, and the increasing maturity of the soul as that journey continues, are all the traveler can ask for. Yet, I also see many parallels to a leader’s journey. Before I voice my insights, I invite you to take in the words unfiltered and through your own leadership lens.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Beautiful! This is the kind of piece that one should post on their refrigerator as a thoughtful reminder for the day ahead. Here are a few valuable leadership lessons that I am taking away from it:
- The first step in leadership is finding your courage – The poem starts with a destination in mind, however the path ahead is potentially a dangerous one. Most true acts of leadership are inherently dangerous by nature. That’s because leaders must often go against the grain, disrupt the status quo, and inspire change in themselves and others. Leaders can prepare for these challenging conditions by aligning their mind, body, and spirit. When a leader has a clear singular purpose, they can find their courage more readily and lead in spite of fear.
- Cherish your time as a leader – When performing the role of a leader, we are often engaged in a struggle. We summon a vision and then rally others to perform against that vision. Change is never easy and the responsibility to keep followers focused on the end state can can be personally taxing. Yet, in this journey we can find so much richness while in relationships with others. We discover new possibilities, uncover potential, and thrive together in applying new found wisdom. When your tenure in a leadership position is up, it will be the struggle that you most fondly remember, not just the accomplishments.
- Leadership is not a destination, it’s a journey – This poem is a powerful reminder that we never really become “a leader,” yet we are always striving to improve our leadership. Often when we master one experience in life we are rewarded with a new and more complex leadership challenge. It’s through the striving that we foster curiosity, maintain our humility, and find our true power.
With these insights in mind, I offer that you check in with yourself. What’s your leadership Ithika? Are you being mindful of the journey?
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