Invictus: an ode to self-mastery

I first posted the following a couple of years ago now, but seemed fitting to repost in tribute to Nelson Mandela…


Inspired by Geoff Barbaro‘s upcoming 55-minute guide to leadership communication, and by the fact that CommScrum‘s first birthday is just around the corner, I finally got around to watching Invictus last night.

It reminded me of the fact that, when I applied to Ashridge to do my MBA, one of the questions on the application form asked me to give an example of a leader I admired and why. I chose Nelson Mandela, citing (amongst other things) his appearance in a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, which I still consider to be one of the most iconic images of my lifetime, and the very embodiment of the spirit of reconciliation.

The movie portrays Mandela not only as an incredibly astute politician (his line about reinstating the Springbok name and colours being a human calculation speaks volumes), but also a man with extraordinary self-mastery. That, above all else, shines through as the foundation stone of his leadership.

His own inspiration – that which “helped [him] to stand when all [he] wanted to do was lie down” – was William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus.

Whilst it may not have the same impact as hearing it read in Morgan Freeman’s dulcet tones (his “caged bird” voiceover from The Shawshank Redemption still brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it), I reproduce it here in full.

Geoff revealed to me recently that he has a framed copy of Martin Luther King’s dream speech hanging on his wall at home. As someone who bangs on incessantly about authenticity, if I were to do something similar, I suspect this poem would be my choice. It’s theme of self-mastery as guide and compass through all manners of adversity, and the associated mental image I have of Mandela on the podium at Ellis Park Stadium, are powerful to say the least…


Invictus by 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.


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