Leaders Standing on the Grave-Mound of the Past

Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities.  ~Eugene O’Neill

Standing on a grave-mound of the past? I never know where I’ll find an inspiring thought about leadership. This time it was in an art gallery. As I wandered through a gallery, I noticed a quote the owner had placed prominently over the main desk. The entire quote by Eugene O’Neill reads:

If you want to become an artist you must come out of your shell…You must come out and scratch and bite, and love and hate, and play and sing and fly, and earn your place in the sun. You will have to starve and weep and know great sorrows and great joys and great sacrifices…Only by standing on the grave-mound of the past will you see the vision of the future clear before you, alluring in its possibilities. 

As I read the quote I thought about the numerous illustrations of a leader as an artist. Then I also thought the word “artist” could simply be replaced with the word “leader” and it would certainly still hold true.

Standing on the Grave-Mound of the Past

I was especially intrigued by the phrase, “only by standing on the grave-mound of the past…” What a vivid image! If it’s a grave-mound, then it must be something we’ve buried, put to rest, moved beyond, but certainly not forgotten and likely closed that chapter with ceremonious recognition. We know where that grave-mound is, we have marked the exact location, and we may even come back and visit it from time to time. But it’s when we boldly stand on that grave-mound that we’ll be able to see the vision of the future in all clarity. Not only will we see it, we’ll be allured (i.e., attracted, magnetized, charmed, pulled) to its possibilities.

In all honesty, I have to admit that I also thought about what I was strictly taught as a child. That it was disrespectful to step on a grave. Does that mean we have to disrespect the past in order to see the future? I doubt it, or really, I surely hope not. Standing on a grave-mound could be viewed as using the past as a season of learning in order to see the future more clearly. 

Revealing the Future

I’ve worked with a number of organizations that have a rich and deep history wrapped in a great deal of emotional attachment. So when the time comes to demolish the flagship building or end the inaugural program, it’s not always met with optimism or hope for the future. In every example I can recall, I don’t believe the current leadership had any disrespect whatsoever for the past. They were using the past (the mound) to see just a little farther into the future; they were standing on the grave-mound in order for the future to be revealed to them.

Whether on a personal or organizational level, we all need to have the courage and boldness to stand on the grave-mound of the past and be allured by the possibilities of the future. We need to allow ourselves to lead with bold grace

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