In 1994, David Whyte, then a consulting corporate poet, published The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. That book had a soothing effect on me as I was, the year I read that book, leading a project against which I now rank all others in my career for its shear difficulty and inhumanity. Though the team I led ranked high on all the success metrics we tracked—well past the 90th percentile—I was sleeping two inches off my mattress by the time we finally delivered and disengaged from the project. The hours were long and brutal, and I saw many of the things Whyte talked about in his book actually happening in a more intense and coherent form than I had at any point up to my career.
Perhaps this book spoke to me because poetry is a part of my life. I could hear that music—and music can be angry and atonal—as the symphony which was what that project was. I can always tell when I’m in the presence of a poet, even if he does not declare himself a poet. Poets see, experience, and speak to the world differently. Recently, John Coleman blogged on the HBR Blog Network not only about the number of well-recognized modern poets in the English language who have held positions in business prior to or during their careers in poetry, but about the similarities between poetry and business—that they are both multi-faceted and dynamic domains and that poets “are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce that complexity to something they begin to understand.”
The frequently-ascribed benefits of reading and writing poetry include enhanced creativity and empathy—both of which are essential to effective leadership. There is even a form of leadership known as mythopoetic leadership, and a key value of leaders—setting the vision—is most effectively done by those who not only communicate well but those who can tell a memorable story and name that which is coming most vividly. Theodore Roethke defined poetry as “memorable speech,” and my own first poetry teacher taught us that the work of the poet is “naming.”
The dark of winter is a great time to read an inspiring book or poem—to yourself, to a child, or even, yes, to the Team you work with. Maybe the Desiderata, If, or Ozimandius would be good jumping off points for Teams.