I can’t blame you if you greet this post with skepticism. Leadership and poetry seems like an oxymoron, like rain and San Diego. I’m even a little surprised you are still reading. But here are lessons from two senior executives who recently used poetry to align their teams and build healthy cultures.

The head of manufacturing for a traditional consumer products company asked me to help his team work through some challenging conflicts. Mark had hired several new executives to implement innovations that challenged the status quo. They enthusiastically began to introduce some new processes, and were now butting heads with the more tenured team members, who felt criticized and diminished.

Poetry Helps Build a Team

We met in San Diego (and yes, it was raining). The first day was contentious. The longer-term team members argued about the risks of making too many changes too quickly. The newer team members advocated strongly that the risks were higher if they didn’t make radical changes.

I felt tension in my neck as I tried to help the group engage in constructive conversations about what would be best for the overall organization. Unfortunately, people expended more energy defending their turf and their egos. The day ended much as it had begun.

After dinner that night, I received an email from the director of finance. In it, Charles shared a poem that he said was meaningful to him:

Turning to One Another
by Margaret Wheatley

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”
Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.
Stay together. 

I was stunned. A finance guy? Poetry?

The next morning we reviewed the previous day, and I asked everyone how he or she might contribute more to the objectives of the meeting. Most acknowledged that they felt defensive, and committed to taking a more constructive approach. Then I asked Charles to read the poem. The team sat in silence absorbing the message.

The energy of the meeting immediately lifted. The team began to listen more deeply to each other’s concerns. They realized there were ways to make significant changes while honoring the current culture. They named their initiative ‘change and continuity.’ Interestingly, the team kept referencing the term ‘community.’ I think the poem significantly contributed to the turnaround, by reminding everyone about their communal responsibilities.

Poetry Builds Resilience

Rose is a charismatic whirlwind. As President of a large non-profit she is constantly raising money, giving speeches, and generating projects. Her department heads struggle to keep up with her pace. Rose is a great originator of ideas, but not as focused on execution. In the past, many projects that looked viable on paper didn’t reap the expected results. Staff often felt despondent because they believed they let Rose down.

Rose recognized that she was burning out her staff (and perhaps herself). So she decided to establish a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ of department heads to prioritize projects and ensure they were well implemented. She wanted to empower the team to become the leaders she was confident they could become.

However, at their first Cabinet meeting, the department heads appeared demoralized and confused.

Rose called ‘time out.’ She looked everyone in the eye and apologized for the peripatetic pace of her leadership. She said that she knew she could be reactive, particularly when she felt anxious. She also described a coping strategy she used to slow down. She took out a piece of paper and read this to the group:

by Bruce Weigl

I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all
into never.
I didn’t know
I would enter this music

that translates the world
back into dirt fields
that have always called to me

as if I were a thing
come from the dirt,
like a tuber,

or like a needful boy. End
lonely days, I believe. End the exiled
and unraveling strangeness.

Rose explained that the poem gave her perspective and helped her reset her priorities. The team was amazed that their hard-charging boss relied on poetry to help her through the day.

They decided to create a new custom: At the beginning of each meeting someone would read a poem or a short prose piece to set a more deliberate and thoughtful tone. This simple ritual also helped them appreciate each other as people, not just as colleagues.

Our leadership effectiveness is limited only by our imaginations, and our courage. Even if poetry is not ‘your thing’ we should open ourselves to all creative tools that cultivate high performing teams and organizations. As Robert Frost wrote:

Two roads diverged in the wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.