Leadership Poetry

Fifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy paid homage to the passing of one of America’s great poets, Robert Frost. Frost had spoken at Kennedy’s inauguration two years prior and both men shared the dream of a country united in hope, opportunity and progress.

Kennedy’s eulogy of Frost at Amherst College fixed on the role of power in society, and the role of artists to keep such power in proper check. “When power leads men towards arrogance,” Kennedy proclaimed, “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 truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

Power was a common theme for Kennedy. At Amherst, he cautioned the audience of college students that although they enjoyed great advantage in American society they also bore a deep and necessary obligation to the nation’s health and well-being. What counts, he said, “…is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity… ‘It is excellent,’ Shakespeare said, ‘to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.’”

Listening to a recording of the speech, I was struck by what the president articulated as the problems of the day: poverty, racism, environmental stress and America’s role in the world. How far we are from a half-century ago and yet how much it seems we are standing still in our problems. What is not similar today is talk of public responsibility and commitment to others. It sounds quaint to the modern ear to hear talk of devoting one’s work to the public interest, except if that work is in the public/non-profit sector. Even then, we look at those in public roles through jaundiced eyes, ever suspicious of their inner motives.

Which causes me to wonder: How many modern leaders are artists in service of the greater good? How many see their  work as a contribution to the great public interest in equal measure with contributions to customers and shareholders? The words leaders use flow freely when speaking of customers and shareholders. They tend to fall silent when speaking of the public good.

The truth of leadership is that its potency lies more in its ability to inspire than directly achieve. It is through this inspiration that the rest of humanity finds progress, advancement and, hopefully, peace. Even a “small” leader of a small team has at his/her fingertips the opportunity to inspire. Wise leaders are balanced leaders whose view takes in more than facts and figures. They understand that poetry is as necessary as Big Data, discourse as vital as quarterly returns and service as commanding as authoritative rule, for each of these things is an aspect of human life giving shape and texture to what we think and do and feel. Our modern world readily glorifies that which relates to material gain but leaves us impoverished in spirit. And it is spirit the leader speaks to above all, with the same tender skill as the poet, artist or scribe.

Kennedy knew this. He believed that strong leaders are also artists, crafting visions and building paths for others to realize. He appreciated poets because they laid bare fundamental truths, truths a leader should consider as often as facts and figures. Artists are naturally suspect of big institutions and consensus thinking, holding those with power in balance for the “great public interest” and in doing so, providing them a wider lens to see the world. It is therefore incumbent on the leader to investment time in the poet’s effort, observing “basic human truths” that can, if she allows them, enrich and enhance her ability to lead others for the greater good.

For “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” wrote Frost. Perhaps a dose of poetry in leadership ends in benefit for us all.



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