Bodie's Vantage Points

Last Lesson Learning Number Five: Find a Kent

Volume XV, Issue 5

I’m fond of sharing my favorite Shakespearean line, ever. It’s in King Lear when Kent, Lear’s faithful lieutenant, tells his beloved and mistake-making King to “see better:” two powerful words, applicable from leadership to love and with everything in between. But for this, my final “Lessons Learning,” series, I’m less concerned with these words as I am with the figure of Kent himself.
Kent, in spite of dire consequences, tells Lear the truth, and he does so because he loves the man. He does so because for him serving the King means being true to what Lear needs, not what he wants. So, Lesson Number Five: find and keep a Kent in your life. And this may be the most important lesson of them all…and maybe the hardest. First, there is the finding of a Kent, and then there is the keeping. Unlike Lear, you can’t banish your truth-teller away beyond the castle keep. Instead, you need to keep your Kent close and then…listen. And that is always harder to do than to say.
Kents have certain qualities that make them good at their job. First, they have unconditional love and respect for you: the stuff that goes beyond any one or two moments. They have, indeed, signed on for something, and they will always hold a perspective both wide and different from yours, and free from flattery. With unflinching attention, they will speak truth to you, but always with a strong understanding of who you are behind it. This relationship, in the words of writer Rebecca Mead, is built when “duty becomes tenderness.”
And here’s the rub: having a Kent only works if you’re aware of the power behind the relationship. Back to those words of “seeing better.” You do have to recognize moments of learning, turning self-surprise into opportunity. It is always a two-way street.
Whenever I’m struggling with a knotty problem or even writing a Vantage Point, I turn to my husband, my own Kent, and yet, still after these many years, I sometimes do so reluctantly. The draw for pure affirmation is a mighty pull. Sometimes I even fight the man: sometimes I just don’t want to hear the truth, in big or small ways. But here’s the thing. He is almost always right (funny how I need to put that “almost” in there!). And if I’m metaphor-heavy or too rhetorical in my writing (I can often be), or more significantly, if I’m working on a hard problem that may feature me as its author, I need the truth. And Kents can only work if you listen…even if you don’t really want to.
I have spoken before about how we should all wear placards reading “works in progress,” and that means whether we are 12, 32, 62 or beyond. Lear was 80. This relationship is anything but a one-off and lives far beyond the immediate. It takes time to learn how to tell the truth, and possibly it takes even more time to learn how to listen to it.
When teaching King Lear, I often ask my students to think about Kents in their young lives. Parents, good friends, cousins, sometimes an aunt show up. But for each of these contenders, there is one constant: the ability to focus purely on them and on behavior, not results. Their Kents allow them to dig deeply into the “how” of it all rather than the “what.” They are learning how to listen and to trust the truth.
Recently, I was asking a friend about a newly elected official and how he was doing. My friend said that the official had two good things going for him: he knew how to ask questions and he knew to ask for help. This reminded me about how important it is to have a Kent on your side when you ask those questions and ask for help. I wish you all a good Kent in your lives.

This is the 15th Anniversary of Bodie's Vantage Points. We invite you to view the full archive of Vantage Points.


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