Lessons from “The Mary Gloster”

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I long to be sophisticated but sometimes I must have some old time rock and roll or a corn dog or my favorite ragged, but comfortable jeans. And sometimes only Rudyard Kipling will do for reading matter.

His best known poem is probably “If” but my favorite is “The Mary Gloster.” It’s long as can be, but great for reading aloud. My daughters will remember it from when I would read them poems at night before bedtime.  Here’s a quick synopsis if you choose not to read the whole thing.

The old shipping tycoon, Sir Anthony Gloster, is dying after a life of great success. Mary was his wife who helped him start the business and who died young. The Mary Gloster is a ship named for her.

As he dies, Sir Anthony talks to his ne’er-do-well son about his life. His advice includes these wonderful lines.

“They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind,
And I left ’em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.”

If that line were all there were, this would be another one of those blog posts about innovation as the sole route to business success. But the poem, like life, has other lessons to teach.

The tycoon not only caught a vision of the future, he had the courage to bet on that vision. He tells his son that when others were building iron ships, he commissioned steel ones. Or, as Kipling puts it:

“I took the chances they wouldn’t, an’ now they’re calling it luck.”

We’re talking about business, so creativity and the willingness to decide and commit resources are important. But so are doing things to make sure that the business makes a profit. After his wife’s death Sir Anthony carried on following her advice.

“Strict I stuck to my business, afraid to stop or I’d think,
Saving the money (she warned me), and letting the other men drink.”

The big lesson of “The Mary Gloster” is that it takes more than one thing to succeed in business. Innovation and courage are necessary, to be sure, but so are discipline and paying attention to business basics.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Business demands innovation and courage, but also ruthless attention to the business basics.

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