“It is told that once an eagle, stricken with a dart, said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft, “With our own feathers, not by others’ hands, are we now smitten.”
I am often told by my students and wife that I like pain and grind of the life of service that I live. That seeking it is my motivation. Recently I have struggled to explain that this is not so and why.
I am currently re-reading “Once an Eagle”, by Anton Myrer. I was inspired to do so by a recent question and observation by one of my students.
This poignant and timeless novel, written by a WWII veteran, is literally a lesson in living your core values in all things big and small, whether leading men in combat against hopeless odds, or enduring the petty politics of day-to-day stateside military life and squalid conditions. (It is gravely timeless in how the world then reflects like a mirror the world today).
The quote by the Greek Playwright Aeschylus above is in the forward of the novel, and I believe is one of the seminal quotes for leadership.
Many interpret (and not necessarily incorrectly) that this quote simply means that our own actions come home to roost and will be our undoing. I agree. But its infinitely deeper than that.
Aeschylus is not talking about solely about consequences. He is talking about our values – good or bad – and that what we are made of is what destroys us in its purest expression, otherwise it was not really part of us and who we are.
You see, the feathers of an eagle are essential, core, and intrinsic to what an eagle is. An eagle must fly, must hunt, must be an eagle. He cannot be anything but that. To avoid being stricken by the dart, the eagle must stop being an eagle (compromise and not use that which is core to its being) or be what it is until the end comes.
The simple and stark point of this parable is this – you must live your values and stick their execution, little and small, no matter what, otherwise they are not yours and not part of you (like a feather to an eagle’s wing). To not do this is to not serve and not live your highest expression. You must put duty, honor, and those you lead (soldiers, family, students, employees) above self-interest or the easy path.
Ultimately, doing so with values, courage, nobility, honesty, and selflessness will lead to challenges and ultimately your end. This happens because there is not a day that the calling ends, and when it does, it is a result of your adherence to this calling (the feather) causes your steps to run out (the dart).
This is the beautiful, bitter, and necessary cost of leadership in service to others and why so few are truly willing to take it up.