Last week I attended a Vistage event in Boston, the annual All City event. For those of you not familiar with the group, Vistage provides professionally facilitated, private advisory groups for CEOs, executives and business owners. The event was held at The State Room (formerly the Bay Tower Room), a great venue with one of the best views in Boston. One of the speakers was David Whyte , a poet, author, and organizational thinker. He is the leader of the Institute for Conversational Leadership.
What is intriguing to me is that he is a poet, through and through. And he has not only been successful at the craft, but he has been able to extend it into other things, and into the business world. Mostly, I’m jealous – because what I wanted from a very early age was to be a poet. I started writing in elementary school, and sent out my first poem to a publication when I was in 7th grade. I was a poetry major in college, co-edited the college literary magazine, and wrote a volume of poetry for my college thesis. I’m jealous because he took his poetry and extended it. I wasn’t confident enough, or clear enough, about what my life should be to keep the poetry front and center. So I got a “real” job, got into marketing, went to business school, and basically wrote poetry behind all that for years and years and years.
I have heard hundreds of speakers, so it’s rare that I’m blown away by someone. I had heard about Whyte many years ago, but had never had the opportunity to hear him speak. He began his talk by reciting a piece of Shakespeare – and then he repeated it – beautifully, and powerfully delivered. Then he broke it down sentence by sentence and provided the organizational context. The room was full of CEOs, senior executives, and business owners – and you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was riveted! I love Shakespeare, so not an unnatural reaction for me. But to see the entire room hang on his every word was incredible. Poetry and business….really? Yes. Really.
A dynamic speaker, Whyte doesn’t lecture but recites dozens of stories and poems, including some of his own, to help bring to life the experience and emotion of change. Whyte says such poems help managers and other employees to rethink their daily habits and assumptions, thus stirring up some creative juices. One senior executive: “My first reaction was: What a waste of time,” he says. “I thought to myself, what could a poet possibly contribute?” But the executive now says that Whyte “helped us to think differently than we ever had before. We had to look inside ourselves.”
Check out this Harvard Business Review article, “A Larger Language for Business,” which is an interview that shares his approach and how poetry enlarges and simplifies the conversations we all need to have. One of the things Whyte said during his talk was, “Poetry is often the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn’t know you knew.” That really resonated for the poet in me.
There is nothing quite like that kind of discovery when you write. In a clear, honest, open, collaborative conversation the exact same thing can happen. I think that’s the connection point between Whyte’s orientation and leadership. And for the first time ever, I am envious of someone else’s career – in a good way.
— Lisa Dennis