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What if We Coached Leaders as Poets?

Brick wall with a single chair on the left. There is a desk, hat and glass of water awaiting the entrance of playwright August Wilson.
Opening set from Seattle Rep's 2023 production

I attended a live performance of August Wilson's memoir "How I Learned What I Learned" performed in monologue for almost two hours without intermission. It is as relevant today as 20 years ago when it first premiered. As an executive coach who uses creativity as a strategy, I see first-hand what leaders are yearning to bring forward, yet finding the traditional skill sets lacking. And I see those being led, silently redirecting their creativity outside of the workplace as traditional frameworks curb their individual contributions. Listening to the monologue weave effortlessly between questions, storytelling, to-die-for beliefs, and stanzas from Wilson's poems, I was struck by the thought -- we need more poets in leadership. Or alternatively, perhaps we need to coach leaders as poets.

Poets Wear Many Hats

Wilson clearly makes a case that it's hard to make a living as a poet. Add the adjective "black" to poet and hard becomes cement. As he learned, mastered, and experimented with what it meant to be a poet, he held jobs as a lawn care specialist, dishwasher, porter and cook. His university was the public library, connecting divergent thoughts and ideas. His talent was his insatiable attention to two competing ideas -- what we learn and what we know. If leaders learned by wearing many hats, paying attention to how the people around them know rather than singlularly focusing on what they know, we might generate teams that are comfortable in balancing both learning and knowing concepts simultaneously. Spoiler alert: At the end of the play, Wilson looks at the audience and asks a singular question:

"How Do You Know What You Know?"

The answer is: you don't. The only way you know is in the doing. The universal truth is that variables are constantly changing. If you are a poet, what you know is a fluid and ever-changing question. The craft, the art, the poem is all in pursuit of the question.

Leaders as Poets Leave Space for Interpretation

Walking out of the theater, I could hear several snippets of conversations. Some referring to the experience as a biopic of August Wilson, referencing history, geography, and the civil rights movement. While others were parsing out the script to identify the stanzas of the poems that found their way into the monologue. I heard the older audience ask where are all the young people and the younger audience ask why there were so many older people there. I didn't hear any self-acclaimed poet give an explanation or try to package an answer as a singular outcome. The power was in leaving space for interpretation.

Leaders as Poets Punctuate Memorable Moments

One of the moments in the play that resonated in the leadership space was the description of an event in 1966 when Wilson stumbled upon a hundred or so black people standing on a corner "outside" of their black Pittsburgh neighborhood. The boldness of such a gathering usually signaled violence or a protest. Neither was true. They were standing on the corner in order to hear snippets of John Coltrane bleed through the open doors of the "mostly white" club where he was playing. Inside the club, Coltrane was background music. But for the hundred or so outside the club, Coltrane was the music. Leaders that understand that memorable moments need to be punctuated, not by them, but by the people who feel the impact and/or care the most. Coltrane is still considered one of the most creative jazz saxophone players ever to have played, attributed to his insatiable desire to learn and transcend the instrument. Poets shine the light on memorable moments both good and bad. They don't see themselves as the producers of those moments but rather observers, noticers, reflectors.

Leaders as Poets Find the Words

Leaders are often told to lead with their actions. But poets know that in the doing we often lose the question. Leaders often get so caught up in the next step that they forget how to be still. Poets use both space and words to create a place to reflect, to ponder, to be. It often takes words to do so. Words thoughtfully assembled give permission where actions don't.

If Leadership is a Poem, What Will You Write?

Writing a poem is a meticulous, often messy process of noticing, recording, reflecting, and questioning. It is a process of distilling things down to the essential question, or the essential need. It is about balancing both content with cantor, rhythm with reason, and where form is both elective and subjective. Impactful leadership is all those things. So pick up a book of poetry, or a pen and get to it. You'll only know what you know when you know it.

Break the Tape Leadership helps leaders unleash creativity and potential in themselves and the organizations they lead to generate meaningful momentum. (And sometimes we write poetry. Other times we lead. But on our best days we do both.)

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