Leadership Library Review: Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead

March 2017

Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

What are the big take-aways?

I was recently introduced to this volume at a lovely “mindful pause” retreat, sponsored by the Center for Courage & Renewal and facilitated by my excellent friends at WholeHeart, Inc.  Leading from Within is a collection of 93 poems picked by a wide range of leaders from business, law, religion, health care, public service and other disciplines, who explain in a couple of paragraphs why they chose the poems.

The book is a remarkable resource for any of us who recognizes that embracing the power of metaphor is part of embracing our own power.

Why do I like it?

I like the stunning array of poems from different eras and cultures; there are selections in here from Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Rumi, Hafiz, Seamus Heaney, and May Sarton, along with Rabindranath Tagore and Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lao Tzu, William Blake, Yehuda Amichai, Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins, Denise Levertov and William Wordsworth, to name a bunch.

Even if you don’t think you “get” poetry or enjoy it, there is probably a piece in this book that lends strangely precise eloquence to an inner wisdom you’ve only ever felt and not thought possible to describe.  It might be a message that comes to you when you are at your most still inside.  As Parker J. Palmer writes in the Introduction (p. xxvi):

Quietude and clarity are both doorways into and destinations of an inner journey.  They name what harried and hard-pressed leaders most need: not just the reassuring words of those who have found hope beyond the headlines but a path that can take us toward that hope in our own way, our own time, our own lives…Poetry offers that path.  In some mysterious way, poetry is that path. 

I also like the short essays by the editors that introduce each segment of the collection, as well as their reading and discussion guide, “Leading with Fire: Using Poetry in Our Life and Work.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Almost all leaders I know – including those who are simply leaders of their own lives – need to slow down and pause for reflection more than they do.  Poetry can help with that.  Indeed, our call to be leaders often comes (formally or informally) as “poetry” from a truth-telling core inside ourselves where our inherent creativity meets our unique expression.

Also, I have a leadership coaching client who sends me poems several times a month in order to convey what he’s experiencing, mostly because he believes he can’t skillfully articulate these profound things himself, but partly because – it seems to me – the very existence of the poems make him feel understood, less alone and more courageous.  And there are other coaching and consulting clients with whom I trade poems when they are in great joy or deep pain, because there are some moments in life when only metaphor can fully capture certain universal, crucial, semi-conscious truths.  As David Whyte says, poetry is “language against which we have no defenses.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

If you’re interested in quite a tour-de-force of an interview with the poet David Whyte by Krista Tippett, I highly recommend the “The Conversational Nature of Reality” (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library) from the radio program On Being.  Leadership is one of many topics the two address in their astonishing discussion.

If you are a “hands-on” experiential learner and would like to playfully explore the connections between leadership and metaphor in a retreat atmosphere, I invite you to check out this workshop I am co-facilitating in June 2017 with Maine poet and naturalist Kristen Lindquist.

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