What obstacles must a leader face to become a man in the hostile world of "If"?

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"If" starts out by encouraging leaders to be self-confident, even in the face of opposition; they should believe in themselves while understanding that others have the right to doubt. Leaders should not return a problem for one presented, whether it be delays or lies or hatred. Leaders should be able to make plans and work for them without becoming consumed with the accomplishment of that plan to the exclusion of everything else; if the plan is worthy, they should keep working to fulfill it for its own sake despite difficulties, not for personal acclaim and without regard for the condemnation of others. Leaders cannot allow themselves to be swayed by others, but must earn the respect of all through their conduct. Finally, leaders must be ready to give all their energy to the carrying out of the tasks they set for themselves.

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Rudyard Kipling's "If" was originally written as a companion piece to a children's story entitled "Brother Square Toes" about George Washington's presidency during the French Revolution of 1789.  The story portrays the life of Washington as an exemplary public figure.  The poem "If" was placed after this story to extract the vital parts of the story's lessons.

Praise of a strong work ethic prevails throughout the poem.  Another theme is that of detachment from material success as an ideal virtue.  A third theme is that of righteousness.  These themes are developed through the use of paradox.  For instance, righteousness without self-righteousness. detachment with determination, and high-breeding with commonality.  Since Kipling was raised in India, there seems to be an influence of the Buddhist concept of balance in this poem.

The obstacles that one must overcome are those that come from imbalance:

Stanza I

  • avoiding irrationality ("keep your head...")
  • avoiding doubt in oneself  ("trust yourself)
  • avoid impatience   ("wait and not be tired by waiting")
  • avoid petty behavior  ("don't deal in lies")
  • avoid immoderation    ("don't look too good...")

Stanza II

  • avoid being unrealistic  ("not make dreams your master")
  • avoid procrastination ("not make thoughts your aim")
  • avoid overreacting  ("meet with triumph and disaster")
  • avoid weakness    (be able to withstand misfortune)

Stanza III

  • avoid worry and fear ("risk...and lose and start again")
  • avoid being self-serving ("never breathe a word" about loss)
  • avoid quitting ("hold on when there is nothing in you)

Stanza IV

  • avoid pride and arrogance ("keep virtue and common touch")
  • avoid dependency ("If all men count with you, but none too much")
  • avoid wasting time   ("If you can fill the unforgiving minute")
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