There is a wonderful story about an ancient king and his son which may well be the first account of an effort at career development. Archeologists have found evidence dating back to 4,000 BCE of the beginnings of the civilization of Sumer. By the third millennium Sumer became an advanced and flourishing civilization in Southern Mesopotamia, which we know today as Southern Iraq. The most fabled ruler of this region at that time was Sargon I. One day Sargon assembled all the wise men of his council to discuss something of great importance to the king—his son. As the legend goes, Sargon’s son was coming of age and showed great promise as a future ruler. He had great physical strength, self-confidence and intelligence. However, the king wanted to prepare him emotionally for the role of leadership.
The king knew that a leader faced many challenges that would confuse and bewilder the ordinary man. Sargon felt that in order for his son to be a truly great leader he would have to understand the importance of perspective—not all good things are as good as they seem at first and conversely not all bad things are as bad as they first appear. Understanding this would be a most valuable lesson for the young prince as he built his own sense of self-awareness and earned the reputation of being a wise leader of men.
So, drawing on his past experiences, the king asked his wise men to write something that, when read, would make a proud man humble and give a man in sorrow hope for the future. And, the most important thing, this writing must be an absolute truth—it must be true in all circumstances at all times. Only advice of this nature would be fitting for the young prince.
The wise men, in full realization of the importance and the enormity of the task, pleaded with Sargon that this was an unrealistic expectation of them to create such a thing. Un-phased, Sargon sent them away ordering them to present their work in three weeks time.
Three weeks later the wise men returned to the palace with several inscribed tablets which they presented to the king. “Make it shorter!” was the command as Sargon waved them off dismissively. After three more attempts with ever shorter versions the bewildered and frightened wise men were sent away with the king’s final command, “Return in one week with no more that five words.”
The following week the wise men returned and handed the king a small tablet with five words inscribed on it. The king smiled as he read the final result of his wise men’s deliberation: “And this too shall pass.”
Over time many versions of this story have developed, but to me the message remains as important for leaders and leaders-to-be in the twenty first century CE as it was in the third millennium BCE. Sargon wanted to pass on to his son an understanding that life’s extremes—happiness and sadness—were transitory and thereby creating a balance and foundation of emotional stability for the young prince as he advanced to assume the role of leader one day.
After more than two decades of working with bright, talented, young professionals I have noticed many things about their behavior and this wonderful fable addresses two very important ones: arrogance and calmness in the face of adversity.
There are many opportunities in a talented young person’s career to become arrogant—a promotion, words of praise from a superior, a significant accomplishment, acknowledgement of achievement by one’s peers—the list goes on and on. It is not uncommon for someone to feel exhilarated by these things and to take an air of self-importance that soon becomes offensive to others and then, in its worst case, a form of career self-destruction. How different the experience becomes if one stops, acknowledges it for what it is, and remembers the words of Sargon’s wise council, “This too shall pass,”—meaning that yes, you have accomplished something nice, but this feeling of exhilaration will pass. The important thing is to “keep your feet on the ground”, receive the accolades with humility and move on to the next challenge.
The same applies to setbacks, failures or extreme challenges in one’s career. These events lose much of their negative impact on one and become much less threatening when filtered through the wisdom of “This too shall pass.”
Good luck on your way up!
About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at www.pragueleadershipinstitute.com
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