Beowulf in the Boardroom: Executives Ponder Poetry
Management consultant Peter Block knew he was hearing something revolutionary that day in Washington: powerful images, exhilarating phrases, deeply stirring insights about human beings and their place in the world. It was language that liberated the soul. It was an unlikely topic in an unlikely setting: poetry in a business seminar. David Whyte, a working poet who thinks reading poetry is a good way to seek solutions to personal and company problems, had been brought in to open business executives' minds. After the seminar, Mr. Block went up to Mr. Whyte and said, ''We have to hire you!'' to come into corporate America. ''For what?'' Whyte said. ''Because the language we now use to negotiate change is simply not big enough for what we're facing. In the poetry I just heard..., the language is large enough for the job,'' Block said. Since then, Whyte has been recruited by such powerhouses as Eastman Kodak; AT&T; Arthur Andersen, the big accounting and consulting firm; Honeywell, and many others. Some discovered him through his book ''The Heart Aroused, Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.'' His audiences are often quiet at first, sometimes doubtful of results, curious about finding a poet, of all things, in their midst. But in the end, participants leave convinced. Whyte's success is an unusual byproduct of a movement that many businesses began pursuing some 20 years ago. Ironically, in the midst of hard-driving expansion and mergers, companies found that certain traits and sensitivities at the personal level - some even call it spirituality - were an important ingredient in managerial success. Corporations began seeking managers who were alert about their own feelings and the emotions of others. ''More and more businesses are thinking this way,'' says Ross Brown, vice president of human resources at Analog Device Inc., of Norwood, Mass. ''Whatever they can do to help their people relate better and understand the world helps business.'' ''Poetry is magnificent at doing that,'' says Whyte. Its language is universal enough to make people aware of similar ideas and experiences in their own lives, he says. It opens their thought, removes limits, and allows them to conceive - often for the first time - new and unexpected answers to old problems. Dealing with the vast, bewildering shifts in today's mercurial business climate requires an individual to understand himself or herself and to take a more penetrating look at the world. The language of poetry, Whyte says, is extremely precise in dealing with the areas of the human psyche that are involved in the process of ''fiery corporate change.'' Poetry, he maintains, calls upon a part of the human character that is at home in the corporate world. ''This is how I work,'' Whyte says: ''I have hundreds of poems memorized. Mostly by others, but also my own. I use the poems when I lead retreats for management groups on topics like creating teams, or coming up with a more entrepreneurial system, or creating more excitement.'' At a program for Boeing senior executives, Whyte recently told a story from the epic poem ''Beowulf,'' whose hero Whyte calls an ''eighth-century management consultant.'' The story was about Grendel, the huge, green, murdering monster who emerged from the lake covered with mud. The hero, Beowulf, grapples with and repels the monster, but later the monster's mother emerges from the lake seeking vengeance. ''That 'Beowulf' imagery proved very powerful,'' says Eldon McBride, a manager in Boeing's executive education and development division. ''It helped our executives see that it was not Grendel that was the real problem or the real fear. The problem was the mother of the fears - their origin. ''In the corporate world,'' Mr. McBride continues, ''we get caught up in this faster and faster routine. We're firefighting and solving problems, but we often solve them on a superficial level instead of dealing with their origin. We need to ask, 'What is the real root of the trouble?' We can make a snap decision and think it's done. But then it comes back in interesting ways to haunt us, because we really haven't taken care of it.'' Fear of change, or of the unknown, is another problem that some companies find poetry can deal with. ''The whole notion of that lake [in beowulf] conjures up the fears facing all of us,'' McBride says. ''We are inviting the executives to take a dive into this lake, to confront their own insecurities.'' In dealing with workers' efforts to preserve their integrity and self-worth in the face of bureaucratic forces, Whyte finds that poetry helps them grasp ''what we intuit for ourselves. There's a line from Wordsworth: 'I made not vows, but vows were then made for me....''' What's the connection? ''Every human has had an intuition that certain 'vows' have been made on their behalf by the world,'' Whyte says. ''They feel destiny has to do with remembering and living out those vows. If you've given away a sense of your own destiny, you need enormous amounts of hierarchy and protection within the structure to make up for what you've given away.'' Does Whyte find any special kind of poetry best suited to this purpose? ''The kind of poetry that's useful is great poetry,'' he says. ''I use everyone from ''Beowulf'' to T.S. Eliot and contemporary poets like Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder. And also poets in translation.'' Even for someone totally unfamiliar with the poetry, such exposure ''stirs things up,'' Whyte says. In these sessions ''I'm always talking about memory. The Greeks said memory was the mother of the muses - not memorization but the deep memory of what it means to be fully human.'' Lisa Gundry, associate professor of management at Chicago's DePaul University, is familiar with Whyte's work and agrees that ''Poetry can foster breakthrough thinking, which is what leads to new ideas and new methods of problem-solving.'' The lure of language first touched Whyte in Yorkshire, in northern England, where he grew up listening raptly to stories told by his Irish mother. In school he specialized not in English but the sciences, graduating with a degree in marine zoology at Bangor University in Wales. Later he was a guide and expedition leader in the Galapagos Islands and Latin America, but eventually decided to devote full time to poetry. He now lives on Whidbey Island in Washington State. In describing Analog's interest in Whyte, Mr. Brown explains, ''We wanted David, through his poetry, to help our engineers get in touch with the humanities, the human factor'' - the ''soft stuff,'' as Brown jokingly calls it. ''The hard stuff - science, finance - is easy,'' he says. ''The soft stuff is hard - human relations. Yet it's the soft stuff that, in the final analysis, counts the most.'' Henry Sims, a professor at the Maryland Business School at the University of Maryland in College Park, has researched ''the language of leadership,'' as he calls it, and written five books on management. ''There is a movement in some organizations to look for uplifting ideas or concepts to make people want to be part of that organization,'' he says. ''Poetry is perhaps a part of this trend.'' In management training, Professor Sims says, it is part of an effort to bring spirituality into organizations. Although acknowledging the trend, Whyte tends to decline its more familiar methods in favor of pure poetry. That art was here, he says, before the human-awareness movement started, and he claims it will be here when the movement is over. His work, he says, is ''directly connected to a pragmatic way of seeing the world.'' Take the unlocking of that talent crucial to any executive hoping to survive in today's corporations - creativity. ''The companies invite me in because they understand they cannot legislate creativity in the workplace or coerce it,'' he says. ''So you have to understand the phenomenology of creative engagement. That's what I bring. We're moving toward the kind of work world which has less security. But we hope it has more creativity and possibility of real engagement.'' At Analog, Brown says, ''We are trying to engage in more teaming,'' in contrast to a rigid hierarchy. ''But many of the engineers,'' he says, ''have been trained to get the people factor out of things. It's part of their orthodoxy - to solve problems purely by technology, by creating an environment where people's idiosyncrasies won't get in the way. We needed to make them more adaptable and reflective, get them in touch with themselves.''