Physician leaders: Stand in the stew and serve the horse to your people!

Defining Reality: Primary Job of a Leader

A thousand year old Celtic story and a corporate consultant agree: defining reality is the primary function of a leader.

Leadership for Celtic chiefs and kings in Wales and Ireland involved embracing a sense of indebtedness and literally immersing themselves in service. Chiefs accessed these virtues through the instruction of magnificent horses, according to Gerald of Wales, a 12th century Welsh bishop. When he came to Britain with the Normans, Gerald was so impressed with widespread accounts of Celtic chiefs periodically feeding their people the flesh of a chosen horse that he preserved the story and its compelling imagery in writing1

The annual ritual began when the finest horse of the realm was turned loose to roam the countryside during the night. Its hoof prints, seen in the light of the new day, established new, fresh boundaries of the kingdom. The horse was then sacrificed and its flesh was stewed in a massive cauldron. Later, during a great feast, the chief stood to his knees in the stew of the horse and fed it to his people.

“The stew is symbolic of the wealth of the tribe–and the king’s in there one hundred percent,” says Ger Killeen, adjunct professor in the department of Celtic studies at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon.

Like Gerald of Wales, Max DePree, author of Leadership is an Art,2 believes in the wisdom of holding on to important mythology. “Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers,” writes DePree. “The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.”

“[T]he first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” writes DePree. Although that reality definitely includes what DePree calls “business literacy” – an understanding of the economic basis of a corporation–it also includes recognizing the importance of diversity, competence, opportunity, equity, workplace identity, fulfillment, and the promotion of civility and values.

Beyond the first responsibility of defining reality, DePree believes that saying “thank you” is the closing function of an artful leader. In short, like the Celtic chieftain standing his stew, the leader “must become a servant and debtor,” he writes.

Physicians contemplating their role as leaders must also respect diversity, others’ competence, opportunity, equity, identity, and promote civility and values.

1. Gerald of Wales. History and Typography of Ireland. Translated by John O’Meara. Viking Penguin, 1983.

2. Depree Max. Leadership is an Art. New York; Dell Trade Publishing, 1989.

Copyright 2000 © by Daniel Hayes, MD MBA

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