Harvesting and Wielding the Gifts of Poetry in Leadership

Brooke McNamara

Brooke McNamara



A poet is someone
Who can pour Light into a spoon,
Then raise it
To nourish
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.


Over time, I’ve encountered many gifts that the study of poetry can offer to my capacities in leadership; of these, three stand out: concentration, inspiration, and play.

Concentration is both the ground and the fruit of any powerful poem. The language of the poem—a system to capture, contain, and transmit consciousness—both arises from and creates concentration. That is to say, poetic language—language potent in imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and energy— naturally arises from the fertility of a concentrated body-mind. And on the flip-side, one who reads a poem born from such a whole-hearted state can become spontaneously and contagiously concentrated.

Poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield writes, “By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.’”

In leadership and facilitation contexts, how could this state not serve? Wouldn’t it nearly always support a group if the one leading were both penetrating and permeable? And wouldn’t your leadership be refined and uplifted by a sense of deep accord between you and others? As a teacher and leader, I‘ve found that one of the most effective and efficient ways to induce concentration is to give myself ten minutes or so with a powerful poem, one whose content and tone both give me no choice but to bring myself fully to the task at hand.

Another of poetry’s great gifts to leadership is inspiration. If concentration is a movement of focusing and gathering, inspiration is a movement of expansion and propulsion. They work together and, of course, overlap. Concentration is fueled by inspiration, and inspiration is organized and made precise by concentration. In the lines above from Hafiz we can feel the partnership of concentration and inspiration that would be necessary to “pour Light into a spoon/ Then raise it/ To nourish/ Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.”

So, inspiration is intimate with concentration. It is also conversational in nature. Both in poetry and in leadership, this point matters deeply. We must focus in order to expand and propel, and we must also listen and participate conversationally with our surroundings. Inspiration is not something that springs up like a geyser and then goes dry; rather, it is an ongoing, indestructible conversation reality is having with itself. And we, as agents and voices for this vivid stream of reality, can notice this conversation and choose to participate with it, or not.

If we invest our attention in what is naturally inspiring right here and now, we can play actively in its conversation. We can change our paradigm from being occasionally lit up, to being proactively IN the game of inspiration. This doesn’t mean always being perky or put together. It means being attuned to a living quality of openness to the truth and beauty of this very moment. It means watching how the particulars of that truth and beauty morph, change, and keep us awake at every turn. Again, it is something the great poets are genius at, and spending time in the landscapes of their poems tunes us and trains us to carry on the conversation of inspiration in our leadership. We can track what is energizing, aspirational, and coherent in ourselves and those we’re facilitating or leading, rather than be distracted by other movements in the field (unless those movements need to be worked with and integrated first).

A third profound gift that poetry can offer our leadership is the capacity for play. By its very nature, poetry takes our everyday, common language and uses it to go beyond itself. It does this through experimentation. Through play. Through condensation, pun, metaphor, and double entendre. Poetry seduces, reveals, and then conceals. All of this stuns our conventional ways of seeing and blossoms or blasts open new pathways of perceiving. If we allow ourselves to be shaped by poetry in this way, it makes us more susceptible to the kind of letting go that’s necessary in order to play well when we are leading. Because we recognize the felt sense of quiet, internal play that comes when we digest a poem into our being, we can carry an inner blueprint for how to fall into play when in front of a group of people.

And what is play? Performance Studies scholar Richard Schechner describes it as “a mood, an activity, an eruption of liberty… characterized by flow — losing oneself in play,” and says that “Play gives people a chance to temporarily experience the tabu, the excessive, and the risky.” So long as this kind of playful risk-taking is tempered by concentration and attunement, and directed by inspiration, it can serve as the magic ingredient that amplifies a learning experience to the level of deep impact.

In our engagement with poetry, it’s important to find the right poets and poems that stir our mind and heart with an intimate charge. And when we do, the fit is like a lock and key. We feel the complex movements of being focused and gathered, lit from within and expanded open and, finally, invited to move beyond our conventional ways of knowing and being. In this way, poetry imprints us with the gifts of concentration, inspiration, and play, which we strengthen by gifting to those we lead.

If we truly give ourselves to the poems we love as a regular practice, we become more and more actualized for the awesome demands of leading a group of people. We become filled with a potent, contagious confidence to vision creatively and fearlessly, to make full, attuned contact with the people we lead, to lovingly sculpt the direction the group moves, and to respond flexibly and intelligently to feedback. We can even become playful enough to risk naming or enacting truths that might liberate tension for the entire group or open unforeseen possibilities. We’ve all experienced leaders poetic in these ways, and through artful practice, we can become one in our own right.

Brooke McNamara is a poet, performer, coach, and author of “Feed Your Vow, Poems for Falling into Fullness”. She holds a BA in Creative Writing (Poetry) and an MFA in Dance, and teaches on faculty at Naropa University.



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