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Business Officer Magazine

Lyrical Leadership

Frustrated by the seeming lack of dialogue in the workplace? Poet, author, and organizational consultant David Whyte emphasizes poetry as the ultimate language for heartfelt conversations that enrich life and invigorate work.

By Susan Jurow

*Organizational development, literary verse, and the world of philosophical inquiry might seem like incompatible disciplines. But, says David Whyte, “my work in all three areas is a lot about breaking down barriers that keep important conversations from happening.” Associate fellow at Templeton College and Saïd Business School, both at the University of Oxford, Whyte believes poetry is the ultimate silo-buster—a language that softens our defenses and opens us up to the human experience.

Speaking from his home in the Pacific Northwest, Whyte, author of six books of poetry and three books of prose, described how he came to apply lyrical language to the business of organizations and the practices of theology and psychology. “They’re mutually supportive, actually,” said Whyte. In a featured session at the NACUBO 2010 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, July 24–27, he’ll explain more about the way poetry can foster qualities of courage and engagement so necessary in today’s workplace, society, and personal relationships. He provided Business Officer a preview of his remarks.

David Whyte will present a featured session, “Three Marriages: Work, Self, and Other,” at the NACUBO 2010 Annual Meeting, Monday, July 26, at 3:30 p.m.

What gave you the idea to bring your perspectives as a poet to the corporate world?

I never went into poetry full time thinking that I would make a success of it in the corporate or organizational world. After all, at least in the Western tradition, the poet’s perspective has always been thought of as one of an outsider—in a way, the radical outsider, someone who is unsullied by the push of normal social expectations.

So, it was quite a surprise when I was invited into that world of corporate and nonprofit organizations by author and consultant Peter Block, whose work is quite wonderful. His invitation was very articulate, noting that the language we have in this world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve entered. He was referring to the territory of human relationship, which is so important in everything we do.

My first instinct was to say no, because I felt that there might be pressures to
 compromise my work, which I wasn’t
willing to do. But, Peter reassured me, and I found, when I was brought into this sphere, that not only did I not have to make compromises, but people were actually pushing me to articulate my ideas and my poetry in deeper and fiercer ways. Demand became quite enormous, just by word of mouth.

Publishing of The Heart Aroused, in 1994 [Doubleday], really put my work into a much larger field of inquiry. Now, I travel all over the world working with leadership groups of all stripes. The overall result is rich and varied organizational work, readings at poetry festivals and other venues, and the consulting work in the theological and psychological worlds. The three different areas are mutually supporting and it’s all quite satisfying. My focus is on breaking down frontiers and previous barriers that have kept human experience in different kinds of silos and stopped conversations from happening. So, I am a facilitator of conversations. And, you could say that poetry is the ultimate linguistic tool for those interactions that can change your identity.

How can poetry help people in the workplace in terms of breaking down those barriers and facilitating change?

It’s best to think of poetry not as an abstract art form, but as human speech as a way of attempting to speak the truth. A lot of the helplessness you feel in vocational life comes from the inability to understand the context you’re in, or to live with the unknowns that are necessary when you’re going through transitional phases. Poetry gives you a language to be able to name things that have, until this moment, made you feel powerless.

When I’m working in your organization, for instance, I’m looking at what happens when you try to have a crucial conversation with a colleague. I look at all the things you’re going to face, not just from a conceptual point of view, but the kind of physical effect that arises when you know you need to have a conversation you don’t really want to have.

I work with the big questions: “Why is it so difficult for human beings to have courageous conversations?” And, “Why do we turn our faces away from not only our colleagues or our customers, but from our spouses, our partners, our children—or from the deeper necessities of an interior individual life?” I try to answer those questions and bring an understanding of the reasons why people turn away from those conversations and the rewards that come from creating what I call this “robust vulnerability” that’s present in every real conversation.

I show people how good poetry will give you language to describe the circumstances that are imprisoning you. And, once you’ve spoken, you immediately see the doorway out. You’ve still got to take that door. But, you have a chance of reframing things and giving yourself a bit of freedom.

Explain what you mean by fierce conversations.

Somewhere beyond our perceptions of individual and universal reality is a third frontier. It is where we interact and engage with others—sometimes people or institutions with which we are unfamiliar. This conversational life often requires tough, confrontational, or fierce talk, whether the communication is among organizations or individuals.

Many of us stay away from that frontier, because we’re afraid of it. We feel we’ll lose our sense of ourselves and we don’t know how to live with the unknown. My job is to leverage the pivotal center of a person’s identity away from this reserved circling of wagons that so isolates us and move toward a central meeting place.

When I go into organizations, I talk about this kind of reframing for the organization and those who work there. For instance, in your institution you need to stop thinking about you doing all the work. Your job, as a leader, is to be a chief conversationalist, and the conversations will lead to the work being done. If those conversations are alive—between you and your customers, between silos and the overall organization, and among those in your workgroups—you invite to the table people with all kinds of other qualities and ideas. You welcome other people’s imaginations, intellect, and perspective. That’s when you get those amazing synergies, in which people know that if they become part of the team and work hard, they’ll all come up with something together that will be quite remarkable.

You’ve spoken for a long time about the need for courage. What are some of its wellsprings, and how do we bring courage forth?

The best understanding of courage comes from looking at the etymology of the word. It doesn’t really mean running under a hail of bullets at the opposing trenches. It comes from the old Norman French coeur, meaning “heart.” Courage, then, is when your heart is involved, you’re vulnerable, and you do something anyway. It’s the measure of your heartfelt involvement.

If you are involved in a very physical, intimate way with what you’re trying to affect, you make sure that things actually start to change. For example, I’m working with children’s services organizations in various countries. Tragically, they lose children all the time because different authorities aren’t talking to one another. The people trying to improve the situation experience a heartfelt involvement in that work, because there’s a child at the center of it. For almost all our work there’s something worthwhile at the center of it that’s worth exposing your heart and feelings for.

Courage also connects to another dynamic: There’s no real conversation in any sphere of life without a form of vulnerability. You’ve just got to identify the particular form of vulnerability that relates to the current conversation. At home, in a love relationship with a partner or a child, you feel or expose a very different form of vulnerability than the one you might show in the workplace. Within an organization, the vulnerability has to do with not having all the answers. 

You’ve written that we are also vulnerable to being captured and imprisoned by our own wants and, further, by technologies that manipulate those wants. How do you recommend that we deal with that tension between our desires and distractions and a more meaningful, interactive life?

The penchant for wasting our time with a lot of technologies is rooted in the whole structure of the human mind. From an evolutionary point of view, a necessary part of the mind is meant to fret and worry about the world, constantly observing potential threats, so that you can survive to the next generation. If you’ve ever spent any time out in the African bush, where there’s a good dozen creatures that can take you out, you pay tremendous attention to every movement, color, and shape around you.

One of the things I say in The Three Marriages is that there's no work that will not break your heart. If you approach it sincerely, it should break your heart.

Of course, now we find ourselves alternately captivated and overwhelmed by electronic communication, which is mostly a shallow form of exchange. The whole nature of the communication transaction is very different, having to do with getting things done. We’re constantly scratching away on the Internet, looking at the surfaces of things because it’s all so fascinating.

Those virtual interactions can, however, give you a sense of belonging and control. For example, at the moment a lot of young people around the world are caught in video game addictions and young lives are being wasted in these virtual worlds. Why? Because those who participate have control over that world and the ultimate vulnerabilities aren’t there. They can manipulate the circumstances while facing ostensible danger and enjoying the adventure. Many young people, especially, feel they’ve been robbed of those exciting experiences these days.

But, it’s a deadly recipe, and we need to understand that there is a part of us that is afraid of the unknown, afraid of the conversation—and is particularly afraid of our own mortality and disappearance. The virtual world can give us the illusion that we can avoid those painful losses. We can say, “Listen, if those are the rules then I’m not playing. I’m going to create my own little virtual world—whether it’s in the computer screen or in my own mind—that other people can’t disturb. I’m not going to have real conversations anymore, because they’re too painful.”

A very large part of the reason that we won’t turn our faces toward the courageous conversations is that about 50 percent of life is a form of loss, disappearance, or fading away. And, most of us can’t quite believe how much loss is involved in an individual human life.

Despite all these distractions and fears, we must have a place within ourselves where we go deep and far. To be able to hold meaningful conversations, you’ve got to give yourself away to that depth—and accept that there will be losses.

Many of the people who work in higher education do so because they believe in the mission, and part of the satisfaction comes from that sense of service or sense of acting on values. Does bringing your values to work change any of the dynamics that you observe and talk about?

That can certainly make the workplace better and more satisfying. I was just working with the 500 administrators and teachers at a school system in Oregon. Their whole event took place in the school, so the reminder of the children was there on a daily basis. So, it’s much easier, if you’re in education, to have a sense of what you’re doing for your world and for your future society, than it is if you’re trading derivatives on Wall Street for a big bonus at the end of the year. There’s a recipe for the whole Wall Street dynamic; it’s a recipe for amnesia, where you forget what you’re about as an individual and how you’re serving society.

But, it can be just as easy to forget what you’re about in a world-serving organization as it is in the worst ethically challenged financial organization. You can forget the children and get caught in the bureaucracy, in the story that you’re telling, in the strange priorities that human beings arrange for themselves in even the most meaningful system.

Part of what can happen in an idealistic organization is that you feel that you’ve failed the original ideal that brought you in. It’s difficult to face that, so you create a layer of insulation between yourself and the children, say, in education, in order to protect yourself from the disappointment. One of the things I say in The Three Marriages [Riverhead Books, 2009] is that there’s no work that will not break your heart. If you approach it sincerely, it should break your heart. If you were to work through the disappointment itself, however, the experience could actually open up the next dispensation of your work.

There’s no mode of human expression—be it in work, marriage, or other relationships—in which you won’t be existentially disappointed or broken open. What poetry and our great religious traditions are saying is “Why don’t you just get with the program; stop trying to arrange things so you won’t have your heart broken; stop trying to be invulnerable.” It’s actually part of the whole mode of human expression and growth.

Look at Nelson Mandela. He must have had his heart broken so many times during 27 years in prison, away from his family, his children, and society. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he never lost the conversation. He just saw the situation as being part of the territory. That’s part of the courage you need to enlarge yourself around the loss, because there’s no life you can construct in which you’ll be immune from serious disappointments.

In terms of loss and vulnerability, higher education leaders are feeling particularly vulnerable because we see our resources moving to health care and other areas. What can you say to help people deal with this and perhaps generate a new energy out of that sense of loss?

One of the present dynamics is that we’re rightly disillusioned with a lot of places where our money goes, whether it’s in health care, or the military, or government. There’s a kind of divine dissatisfaction abroad in society around almost everything. And, it’s because many of our structures have become too abstract and convoluted. One of the refreshing things about health-care reform is that something very simple is at its center—providing care to everyone in society. We’ve still got a very dysfunctional, massive health-care system that must be reformed—and we hope will be reformed because of the pressures that we put upon it to deal with these extra 40 million people coming into the system.

Higher education has got equivalent complications and convolutions. And, there’s a great dissatisfaction about the amount of money that college now costs and about all the secondary emanations of education that don’t have anything to do with putting a young man or woman in that magic frontier with a good professor or teacher. So, I believe that nearly every vocational path has to radically simplify itself around its foundational qualities.

The great questions for higher education are: “What form of radical simplification do we need to go through?” And, “What is it that the rest of society is saying about us that we need to heed?” There are certain perceptions that people have about higher education, which we must take on and actually address, before the system breaks.

SUSAN JUROW is a consultant and former senior vice president of professional development for NACUBO.