The Penalty of Leadership

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In 1915 an essay called “The Penalty of Leadership was written for an advertisement for Cadillac to be posted in the Saturday Evening Post. It not only rescued Cadillac’s reputation, but it served as an identity for the company for years after. In 1967 a poster was sent out to every Cadillac owner including one Elvis Aaron Presley.

He felt it spoke to him almost personally and was so inspired by the text that he had it framed and hung on the wall of his office in Graceland.

I recently discovered the story when I was visiting an exhibition of his personal effects at the O2 in London. As a marketing man the story also connected with me and I felt it was worth a post to share the content. It reads…

“In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction.

When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a-wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius.

Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountback, long after the big world had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by.

The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to deprecate and to destroy – but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant. There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions – envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader.

Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live–lives.”

Words which today can be interpreted in so many ways, whether it is aimed at those which are harshly criticised through the media or social media as soon as it seems they achieve greatness. Whether you focus on the fact that being a leader is a state of mind as much as anything.

Whatever you draw from it, it also demonstrates that a message when strong enough transcends any rules of engagement with the public. I’m not sure any copywriter would be taken seriously today if they went to their editor and said, “I want to place an ad with no imagery which runs to 413 words and doesn’t mention what we do or the product once”, but great content well written still counts and a modern day Penalty of Leadership is well overdue!


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