More than 40 years ago, I was handed my college diploma and, two days later, showed up for work at my first official job. I didn’t realize it until much later, but I walked into the doors of my employer that day carrying an assumption. I believed that people in positions of authority – bosses – always knew what they were doing. Why else would they be bosses?
Slightly more than a decade later, my assumption continuing to take body blow after body blow, I was presented incontrovertible evidence that my assumption had been flat-out wrong.
A group of us were sitting in a conference room, waiting for the news to go public that one of the company’s top products had a problem. The first indication would be the stock market. We all knew the news was imminent, and we had prepared for it as if a tsunami was about to strike, which, metaphorically, turned out to be true. The call came, confirming that the news was public, and for a very brief moment we experienced a silence.
We were all a bit shook, but I knew we were prepared. We had thought through all kinds of scenarios. We had planned for every eventuality. The pace of the planning had been exhausting for weeks. But I knew we were ready, as ready as any company could possibly be.
And then the executive to whom we had all looked for leadership, for guiding us through what would become a very difficult time, spoke. “What do we tell our people?” he said. “What do we tell our customers?” His voice was filled with emotion. He was nearly in tears.
We were all a bit stunned. And then my immediate boss, sitting next to me, looked at me and said, “Go!” That was the signal. Without excusing myself, I bolted from the room, ran to the building next door, and found the team of people waiting. Everyone knew exactly what they were to do. And all I did was repeat my own boss’s word. “Go!”
Statements were issued. Communications were sent to customer organizations. Media calls were made and returned. Faxes were sent. (This happened in the days before email and electronic communications.) This would be my life for the next week, interrupted only by the Thanksgiving holiday, and it would continue for the next month.
But in that brief moment at the very beginning, I had seen two extremes of leadership. A senior executive’s worst fears had happened, and he foundered. My own boss, well down the corporate totem pole, had given me a one-word command, a simple word that was like a hyperlink to a massive amount of preparation and a plan to be implemented.
Later I would come to explain it to myself as a kind of epic poem. It was as if Beowulf didn’t slay Grendl, but instead had fallen, replaced by a younger, less-experienced subordinate who went on to slay the monster. The world as that executive had known it had come to a rather abrupt end, and he didn’t know how to navigate his way, or ours, going forward. We were going to have to invent what that way would be.
My assumption about bosses died that day. A few years later, struggling to lead my own team through the unchartered waters of corporate upheaval, I read The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Corporate Soul in America by poet David Whyte. And I realized that poetry could be more of a guide that all of the management science and self-help books put together.
From Poetry at Work: “It is the soul—that place in the depths of our existence—where storms often rage, and chaos is more the norm than the exception. We don’t just bring our skills, talents, experience, and physical bodies to the workplace; we also bring our souls, as much as systems management tries to deny and fight it.”