Poetry and Leadership

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Over the last few years I have noticed the increasing use of poetry in leadership books and workshops. I regularly encounter the works of David Whyte, Mary Oliver, Scott Cairns, Black Thought, Dice Raw, and Denise Levertov to name a few. In other places, it is the work of the Rap and Hip Hop artists, and slam poets that speak truth about leadership. Personally, I have found the writings of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich to have deep insights for me as a leader.

In preparing to write this short article, I found that I was not alone in musing about poetry and leadership. In fact, I stumbled, or Googled, across two wonderful blog articles by Dora Malech that make the connections and case for poetry and leadership far better than I can. She speaks of the ways in which poetry has the “power to startle, unsettle, provoke, and question”, and how poetry can help us engage with the complexity of leading and engaging in these times. I recommend that you spend time reading those articles found here and here.

Of course the power of poetry to do these things, to face complex situations in which there are no easy answers, should come as no surprise to us. Where do we turn to when life perplexes us, when there doesn’t seem to be any clear answers, when we have come to the end of our thinking as leaders? Is it not the poetical books of the Bible (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon)? And when the early church wanted to express the mystery of God in Christ, they wrote hymns and psalms.

May I suggest then, that as leaders, we spend more time with poetry and less time with prose that purports to outline solutions for us. Can we spend more time dwelling in language that provokes us, unsettles us, confronts us with the complexity and invites us to wrestle with it? Can we allow the words of poets to seep into our souls, to percolate, and see what new things can emerge that enable us to better lead in these complex times?

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