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Poetry in the boardroom – Rethinking corporate life in the Emerald Isle

In Business and Environment by LivingNowLeave a Comment

The small Irish cottage was buzzing, as all things Irish seem to be these days. A room full of academics, management consultants and corporate executives, used to the ever-present whiteboard, overhead projector and flow chart, were looking at nothing more than a raging peat fire. We were assembling in eager anticipation of the words of a man who is currently setting the boardrooms of America alight with his recital of poetry.

As David Whyte began to speak, a silence fell over the packed room. A Yorkshire man with an Irish ancestry, Whyte now lives in the picturesque Puget Sound area off Washington State. His initial training and work as a marine zoologist has been gradually consumed by his success as a modern day bard, poet and now author of the management best seller “The Heart Aroused – Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America”.

Whyte’s 10 day residential course in the west of Ireland, entitled “Poetry, Music and Myth for The Soul” serves as an intensive introduction to his work. Through the timeless vehicle of poetry, Whyte has found a novel yet powerful way to access a new and deeper level of corporate thinking. As Phil Condit, President of the Boeing Company, says: “David is someone from outside our system saying that there are other ways of looking at the way we do things. David Whyte causes you to think”.

With major clients such as Boeing, AT & T and Kodak, Whyte is touching on an aspect of corporate life which is largely untapped. Charles Handy, the British management guru, writes that businesses make money only if they do something else as well, success being as much a function of the collective will of people in the organisation as its technical ability to manufacture goods and services. Poetry not only speaks to this collective will but engages it.

For example, take this passage from a poem by American Mary Oliver, one frequently recited by Whyte. Entitled The Journey, it speaks not just of change, but also brings to life the experience of change itself.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried,

“Mend my life!”

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

… and little by little,

as you left their voices behind

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognised as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do-

determined to save

the only life you could save.


The success of any organisational change process will rest on the reaction of its people. It is the emotional aspects of change which are so often ignored in the workplace, and yet these are the very aspects which can sabotage even the most well thought out technical plan. Oliver’s poem speaks to these emotional aspects in a way that does not deny them, but confronts them. Her poem reminds us all that change is evolution, and that it is in the process of change that we undergo an inner transformation that ultimately leads to a new and stronger self. The learning and transformation were in the journey, rather than simply the result of it. The poem speaks to the reality of change and growth. It embodies all the trials and tribulations that both an individual and an organisation must go through in order to find their own true voice.

Organisations which acknowledge and embrace both their own emotional vulnerability as well as their employee’s have the ability to create rich, meaningful and ethical workplace cultures where the soul of the individual is engaged and the intangible is harnessed. As Peter Senge illustrates in The Fifth Discipline, evolved organisations not only honour the instrumental factor of work, i.e. where work and the people involved in it are viewed as the means for generating income, but also the sacredness of work. Sacred work and sacred workplaces mean simply that people are valued for themselves, not only for the instrumental purpose they serve.

And so after almost two weeks of daily poetry sessions with David Whyte, the journey came to an end. The peat fire was now a shadow of its former self, the room was quiet and contemplative. The man had transformed us all. His quiet and humble ways showing us a new and legitimate path through the corporate jungle: one that engages creativity and imagination, and enhances rather than detracts from the traditional values of productivity and profit. In the excitement of new business, it is ironic that something as ancient as poetry should return to the corporate fold. Yet it is in the very rise of this ‘newness’ that such opportunities for change are created and seized. Whyte has demonstrated just how successful and rewarding these new ways can be.

Robin Elliott BBus, MMgt

Robin’s early work life centred upon human resource management positions in the hospitality, chartered accounting and finance industries.  Most recently she held a Lecturing position for six years with Edith Cowan University.  Robin specialised in the teaching of human resource management and management at undergraduate and post graduate levels and was engaged in various research and consultancy activities.

Since 1997 Robin has consulted to a variety of companies such as Freehill, Hollingdale & Page, AMP, Westpac and Chevron Asiatic in strategic organisation and management development.  In 1998 she established Odin Management Services, with a particular focus on supporting individuals and organisations to reconnect to their spirit and soul.

Robin has a Bachelor of Business (Personnel & Industrial Relations) from Curtin University and a Master of Management (HRM) from the University of Western Australia.

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