What can business leaders learn from poetry?
The utility of poetry – and of literature and the humanities in general – is under scrutiny on a near daily basis. As our executive director Ann Kowal Smith noted in a recent post, many universities across the country are proposing cuts to their humanities offerings; one University of Wisconsin campus proposed the near-total discontinuation of its English department. If university administrators and faculty struggle to see value in poetry, does it have a place in regular society – let alone the business world?
To cap off her first term as U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith recently reflected on the purpose of poetry after completing a year of readings and discussions with rural communities in New Mexico, South Carolina and Kentucky. Not surprisingly for a poet, she determined that poetry’s value is unequivocal. In the lecture, Smith stressed that poetry forces us to listen. It asks us to contemplate the lives of others and “take in their perspectives.” It’s a remedy for the technological distractions that bombard us.
Most importantly, Smith emphasized that poetry allows us to take a breath when we lose sight of our vision. It guides us “toward the part of ourselves so deeply buried that it borders on the collective,” the universal sense of self that we each possess.
“Poetry can save me from disappearing into the narrow version of myself I may be tempted to resort to when I feel lazy or defeated,” Smith shared, “or when my greedy ego takes over.”
If there was ever a resonant refrain for business leaders, it’s the idea that narrow thinking is the enemy of vision and innovation. Think of the myriad articles for leaders that underline the importance of communicating and embodying a company’s vision: it’s how employees understand that “their work matters on an organizational level” so they stay “motivated and productive.” But keeping big-picture vision intact can be tough in the midst of the daily grind, particularly in organizations where people are siloed and mired in the narrow detail of their tasks. And articulating a vision is even harder – the sparse language of the corporate world doesn’t always lend itself to inspiration. Even if leadership has internalized vision, they may not have the tools to communicate it – thus, “employees’ visions grow narrower.”
This is where poetry finds its place. As Smith said, poetry is “not the language of our day-to-day errand-running and obligation-fulfilling.” Rather, it “put us in touch with something bigger.” A poem may not have immediate business implications, but it can certainly put leaders and employees back in touch with their company’s mission and purpose.
An organization that provides funding for causes dedicated to a more equitable world and economy experienced a mini Books@Work session last winter. They read the short Langston Hughes poem “Harlem”:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
Although they reflected only briefly on the poem, it resonated with the organization’s staff. In a few carefully-crafted lines, “Harlem” articulated both the hopes and struggles of their grantees as well as the “dream” that fuels their work. “[Later], we were having a spirited discussion about a challenging grant decision,” an organization leader noted, “and somebody broke through and reminded us of the Langston Hughes poem. And the particular beauty is we were discussing a grant action where [Hughes] lived.” “Harlem” was a chance for these colleagues to step back and remember why they do what they do. This kind of self-reflection is all the more critical when challenges seem too mammoth to tackle – a common occurrence in the corporate world. Tracy K. Smith described the act of sitting together and “talking about something as simple as a poem” as an opportunity to “go quiet, slow down.”
Poets exist for a reason: to articulate universal truths that we often struggle to articulate ourselves. The same goes for any author or artist. In business, it’s easy to forget the why when everyone is preoccupied by the how. But sometimes, a poem or a short story gets past our blinders and provides a ready-made vocabulary exactly when we need it.
So much of the magic of Books@Work occurs in the genuine connections that develop between colleagues; but magic also happens when the words on the page remind participants of the big picture – and articulate the greater vision that is so often lost in the day-to-day.
Image: Lygia Pape, Books-Poem, 1959, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org