At first blush, leadership and poetry may seem to have little in common. However, a number of management studies have suggested various methods for leaders to leverage poetry, including a recent model that draws upon four layers of meaning in poetry to identify approaches that leaders can apply in contemporary business practice.
Additionally, poetry’s capacity for leadership development is being leveraged in creative writing workshops to develop leadership characteristics like empathy and inclusivity, with ongoing studies in healthcare leadership continuing to illuminate how these workshops contribute to gains in EI, accomplished by way of developing keen observation, reflective awareness, and close listening.
And upon further consideration of leadership and poetry’s real-world applications, a shared and significant trait readily emerges: Each not only facilitates rich discourse and encourages integration, leadership and poetry also have the capacity to respond with an inclusive and humanizing perspective to situations rife with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Abraham Lincoln was a leader well aware of this twine between poetry and leadership. Lincoln lived in a polarizing time and was a frequent target of propaganda. He was acutely familiar with propaganda’s goal to simplify the human response, and he responded with poetry, inviting its ability to enrich and unify the human response by recognizing complexity, defying simplicity, and evoking connection. This is what good leaders do: When faced with some of life’s biggest questions and greatest trials, they rise to the challenge of moving beyond divisiveness, calling others to realize what it means to be fully human, summoning a response that connects us to that larger relationship.
Lincoln was well aware of poetry’s ability to do exactly this—to humanize amid conditions that might otherwise ignite efforts to dehumanize and deplete. He used poetry as an outlet for connection during tumultuous times, penning witty lines of doggerel to his generals alongside the serious battlefield missives exchanged among them. But above all, his understanding of poetry’s integral power was evident in his ability to speak precisely and concisely as well as evocatively. Ezra Pound called poetry “words charged with meaning to the utmost degree.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is an ideal example of plain yet emotive language’s capacity for such sensate depth and clarity. At 272 words, it is considered one of the most poetic speeches in recorded history.
Just as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address confronted complexity with clarity, inviting healing and unity amid travail and suffering, Lynn Ungar’s contemporary poem, “Pandemic,” has invited solace and compassion amid the current disruption and uncertainty. Since it was published fewer than two months ago, Ungar’s poem has been republished in multiple languages, referenced numerous times in speeches by leaders around the world, and shared hundreds of thousands of times. While its lasting influence remains to be discovered, it is an excellent, recent example of poetry’s exquisite call to summon human nature’s “better angels” into the larger experience we have always shared.
Because of this relationship, the voices of leaders like Lincoln become poetic testaments to healing and unity—and the voices of poets like Ungar become leading testaments to healing and unity.
When asked, What do you derive from poetry that informs your leadership, Andrew Gordon, a senior leader in the instructional software industry, put it this way:
“I find it challenging to put the value of poetry into words. And that’s the point, really. Reading or writing poetry brings us out of our linear, discursive thinking and into a more creative mindset that allows us to experience greater meaning and depth. Art, including poetry, allows us to connect with our purpose and intentions in ways that logic fails to reach. This mindset of creativity and meaning is essential in genuine leadership. Giving direction and logical reasoning is just a small part of a leader’s role.
Real leadership requires conveying purpose while recognizing the potential in others. A strong leader appreciates people’s humanity along with their capabilities. Communication is the vehicle for leadership, but how a leader’s message is conveyed often carries more meaning than the words themselves. The underlying meaning beneath the words are formed by the leader’s mindset and intentions—they arise before thought—and then are expressed during communication with others. Art and poetry give us access to this depth we carry with us in ways that logical thinking cannot. We need our leaders to be artists of humanity.”
Below is a poem from Gordon in response to the current pandemic, a work that calls to mind capacity:
In my heart I’ve found room.
It’s surprising, because I have this habit of hiding.
Remembering what hurts and not what I’m capable of.
But today I discovered a little bit of room
And gave myself space. To be me.
To not have it all together.
To be right where I am.
Even when right here is scary.
But that space, though…
I peeked in and my senses shifted.
What I thought was a little bit of room was vast.
The expanse of the universe within.
Just through that peek into a bit of space.
In that space, my heart resides.
And it has room for me.
It has room for you.
It is flowing with lovingkindness and acceptance.
This is when I realized that this space is beyond me.
Beyond my friends, my family, my circle, my tribe.
This space of awareness is life.
And a tender, wrenching, broken heart.
In the power of space.
Joanna Beth Tweedy, Ph.D., is a graduate of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership and serves as the Center’s executive writing coach. She is the founding editor and host of Quiddity international journal and broadcast (NPR IL) and also teaches at Western Governors University.
Andrew Gordon is a current doctoral student and a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with extensive experience in software project and program management. He holds a certificate in contemplative psychology and has a keen interest in discovering ways to reveal the awareness, compassion, and sanity within individuals and organizations, such as through poetry.
Find more in our series Rising to the Challenge: Values-Driven Leadership During the Coronavirus at this link.