Every time I think of doing something scary, I want to go back to waiting tables. Every dining encounter is, in and of itself a whole universe with a beginning, middle and end. I can walk out at the end of the night with cash in my pocket, get in my car and drive away. I could go 400 miles in my current car on a full tank of gas. That and clean laundry gets me to Wolf Creek, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; or Calgary, Alberta. Promises of adventure could happen in those towns on a day’s drive. My whole life reinvented for one night of waitressing.
But instead, I’ll come and stand in front of a crowd of people gathered for what they think might be 5 Keys to Management Success or 10 Tips for Leadership Effectiveness. Before I’m up on stage, after they’ve stumbled through my short bio, I breathe down into my ankles, draw myself up and commence with a poem. If you’ll stay for the 2 minutes and 34 seconds it takes for me to say Diving In or It Wasn’t As If, and you’ll turn your smartphone face down, uncross your legs, and lean toward me a little; if you watch your breath catch and your face soften, if then, we can talk about the unsayable of your work. We can talk about the courage it takes to show up everyday, and all the stories and baggage you had to leave out in the car, or on the street near the subway stop where you emerged from underground. If you’ll give me three minutes of your undivided attention, I might be able to change your life.
Right now I want to run just thinking about this bold promise, but it’s like I can’t help myself. It’s like craning my neck toward an accident on the wrong side of the road, holding everyone else up behind me, risking the honking, and the drivers racing past to flip me off. It’s almost like I have to not care about you at all to actually care about you, but really what I mean is that I’ll not care about what you think about me. It’s like those people with terminal diagnoses who tell you that this was the best thing ever to happen to them, and you think that’s the most bogus thing you ever heard, especially because your sister died at 36 and that wasn’t a best thing on any level. But then you realize that what they mean is that for a split and shining moment, which could last seconds or months, they actually don’t care about what anyone thinks about them or what this sort of risk could cost, and they can really, fully show up. That’s the sort of thing that makes me dangerous in front of you right now with my small poem and my big ambition.
Here’s the thing: in America, at least in the last 40 years, poetry past nursery rhymes is often held firmly in the hands of tyrannical literature professors, and worse, MFAers who really want to write but reluctantly teach because they’ve got to make money and they don’t want to wait tables like out-of-work actors. They feel great disdain for you, whether you’ve signed up with excitement or resignation for their spring quarter Intro to Poetry class on a sunny Wednesday. You’re not serious about this poetry stuff, after all, and even if a small part of them wants you to love it, they think you’re not special enough to get it.
But none of this is true, actually, even though I’ve been apologizing for those poetry profs for years and years now, the ones who made it hard and inaccessible, precious and unattainable. Because I know you, I see you, person at the 3rd table from the front, half-interested and wishing the conference was over already. I hear you, when you take the time to say hello after my talk and tell me that you’re not really a poetry person, but you liked that thing I did, and that you heard what I said, and it’s true, you really do want a different sort of relationship to your work and your life. I know you gave me that 2:34 somewhat unwillingly and I’m not, for one small second, going to waste it.
Once, I was conducting a series of interviews for a client. This is a customary practice of my current work when I go in to take the pulse of what’s going on, when I take my poet’s deep listening and noticing skills into a conference room and ask open-ended questions. I’m looking for patterns and trends. I’ve got that sort of face, too, and people just tell me things. At the end of this particular interview, the man sitting across from me begins to recite Rex Wilder’s “Sounding Aboard the Rafaella.” This was the sexiest thing to happen in daylight hours in a long time. They’re googling me before I arrive, they see the Poet in the Boardroom stuff, and they want to share their secret: they’ve got a poem they love, or they write their own, or they just know I might be an audience who cares. You might think this has happened only once, a freak incident? Not so. Just months later in the glass conference room of a $112 billion headquarters, another man quoted his favorite passage from Walt Whitman. I froze right there and remembered that I’m so lucky: spontaneous poem bits in the middle of the day under florescent lighting? Sigh.
In 2014, I spent a month in Western Ireland. I love my notion of artistry in Ireland. It’s not precious or special. It would be ordinary, or even mundane, for a chance encounter with someone who openly shares his art with you. Art is a normal, human activity. Every other lad in the pub writes poetry, memorizes Yeats, plays the fiddle, the harp or the tin whistle. Your plumber is a pointillist painter. Your Aunt Meg plays the uillean pipes. If you’re in Limerick City on any given night with a group of friends, you might receive the “Noble Call,” to share your song, story, poem or dance in response to the mood or atmosphere of the evening. Have it ready. It’s more than a party trick.
Once, I was at a special dinner with some friends. Guests of honor included Steven Spielberg and his lovely wife Kate Capshaw. Toward the end of the dinner, my Irish friends began invoking the Noble Call. “Hey Libby, do your Italy poem!” Recite a poem for the greatest film director of our time? I dove in to the luscious luscious images—the hills of Tuscany, the scent of ripe Sangiovese, the rose light in the afternoon. I could’ve been terrible, star-struck and frozen, but I wasn’t. We were gathered around the table in the candlelight willing to share the very best of ourselves. It’s a human thing, this noble call, and it’s a place to begin, whether you’re at a party with Steven Spielberg, or a talk on aging you’re giving in Blaine, Washington, or arriving at your desk this very next Monday.
Where are my Ten Tips about leadership? you might be wondering about now. I’m guessing that if you’ve come this far with me already, you’re a bit out of the ordinary. You’re curious enough (or you’re related to me) and you’ll hang in there to see if there might be something practical, something useful here. Here’s what I think: you don’t actually need 5 Keys or 10 Tips. You’ve probably had your leadership development or management classes, you figured things out by trial and error, or you graduated from a prestigious university with an MBA. You’ve got a bunch of books on your iPad and you’ve read the most important titles touted by HBR as the ones to read. You actually don’t need any more of that—what you need is a beautiful mindset, an extraordinary way of being that carries you like a yar boat, responsive, lively and level, out into the depths of the big, wide sea, your spyglass keen on the horizon. You need to bring your artistry, all that you have to bear, to the very next place you’ll go in the world of your work.
The last thing I want to give you is Ten Tips. Artistry doesn’t work that way, in a linear, bulleted fashion, but I remember my poetry professor James McCauley, who cried when he recited Easter 1916 to us, shaking his fist to say you must learn your craft. You must know the rules before breaking them! It’s not that there’s no use for the analytical, strategic mind in organizational life. It’s not that those spreadsheets and financial statements or Gantt charts offer you nothing of value—it’s just not enough anymore. To lead in a postmodern world, a post-information age, requires embracing not only a counterintuitive approach to the frontier, but also a fully embodied sense of one’s vulnerability. It’s not heroic leadership or servant leadership that will help you navigate this new world. It’s artistic leadership—the risky, ready-to-fail and looking for rejection sort of stepping to the front. It’s just enough ego, but not too much. It’s the marriage of ambition and humility. It’s down to the bones and from the heart. Creativity, after all, is the mother of innovation. Dramatically speaking, without it, you die, and so does your organization.