There is a one-page interview with poet David Whyte in HBR in May. Whyte uses poetry to address leadership and business issues in corporation. He said he was initially invited to do corporate work after giving a talk about poetry and an executive said, “The language we have in the corporate world is far too small for the territory of relationship and collaboration we’ve entered.”
I thought it was interesting that an executive recognized the depth and power of relationship and collaboration, frankly. But Whyte found that executives were hungry for this “larger language” that is “impervious to the jargon we have created to describe” everyday business life.
What I really love about this brief piece about Whyte, though, is his focus on conversation, as that is often what I am doing in organizations.
At the executive and managerial levels, work is almost always conversation in one form or another, and yet we spend almost no time apprenticing ourselves to the disciplines necessary for holding real exchanges. That’s partly because they involve a great deal of self-knowledge and a willingness to study how human beings try to belong—skills we hope our strategic abilities will help us get by without.
The temptation is to say, “I’d much rather inhabit the 5% of reality where I’m in control than enter this 95% where I don’t know what the hell is going on.” But a conversational approach makes work less stressful, not more so. It means leaders don’t have to try to be paragons of perfection. My work has executives asking, in many areas of their lives, personal and professional: “What is the courageous conversation I am not having but need to have to take the next step?”
It is very clear to me that we can’t afford to skip these skills or avoid these conversations in the business world. I’m glad that the notion is becoming mainstream enough to make it into Harvard Business Review. But I fear people will read Whyte’s words and nod appreciatively–but stop short of actually changing the way they have conversations. This one starts at the top. If you hold a position of authority, please step up and challenge yourself and your people to have more powerful conversations.