Well, there are historical precedents. We know that our ancestors were led by tribal leaders whose war bands spread out to change the world. What is not so well known is that these chiefs were invariably accompanied by bards or skalds, poets who offered a three-fold service. Firstly they carried the history of the tribe, the stories and myths that held the warrior’s wisdom and values. Secondly they were allowed to speak to power: to say, “I think this idea is crazy”, or, “You’re about to lead us over a cliff!” Lastly, they we able to draw people’s minds away from their pressing tasks; to get them, momentarily, out of their silos, to add a certain breadth or humanity, to make them reflect. Take away the swords and armour, keep the adrenaline and the drive, and you have today’s successful working culture. The targets and strategies are uncannily similar – likewise the bonuses and rewards – but where are the poets?
Generally, we stopped having poets at our important meetings. If we’re lucky we get some wisdom at the top, but more often the boss sets the tone and we’re off to the races. In runaway businesses from Enron to Lehman Brothers, we lost the essential balance of numbers and humanity. This is also true in the public sector, as goal setting and outcomes have led public servants to make some terrible decisions based on short term gain. We need to reflect, to rethink, and in these difficult times, we need to maintain our links with what matters most. At that point a business can turn to a poet.
As far as leadership is concerned, poetry has a great deal to offer. Tyrants fear and suppress it while visionary leaders invariably turn to it as a resource and inspiration. President John F Kennedy, for instance, acknowledged poetry’s power to curb man’s folly and re-establish the old human verities. “When power leads man towards arrogance”, he said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.”
In the final analysis, poetry can re-awaken our compassion, and our inner wisdom. It can re-confirm the presence of love, or grief, or any of the other things that invisibly, and immeasurably matter in our lives. Perhaps most importantly, given recent history, it can challenge those tyrannical ideas that can arise in any organisation when it becomes overly focussed on outcome and result. In the end it can help us to make better decisions.