Why Reading Poetry Can Make You a Better Leader

Business books are fine, but poetry is the key to innovative thinking

Photo: Fred Dufour/Getty

AA poem is a story concentrated into a careful handful of words, each of which is curated to hold utmost meaning. With diction and form, structure and sound, a poem navigates you through an emotion-laden experience in hopes of leaving your mind with a complex bounty of thoughts and, often, a new perspective. A poem is almost always multifaceted; it is, as Clare Morgan describes in her book What Poetry Brings to Business, a “puzzle with multiple, inexhaustible, co-existent — and interchangeable — ‘solutions,’ each more or less dependent on the others for validity.”

Frequent poetry reading develops your perceptiveness and thinking capabilities, nurturing problem-solving skills for complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous problems.

Because the format of poetry requires unpacking and consideration, reading or writing poetry tremendously benefits business people and entrepreneurs, in a number of different ways.

Poetry can improve your problem-solving abilities

Frequent poetry reading develops your perceptiveness and thinking capabilities, nurturing problem-solving skills for complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous problems. In reading a poem, you develop meaning and interpret a story from words filled with both intentional and unintentional ambiguities. You extract such meaning by drawing upon the poem’s content, context, and use of poetic devices. When facing complicated managerial problems, having this ability to balance unknowns and generate solutions from nuanced reasonings allows for more imaginative and effective solutions. In an article for Harvard Business Review, John Coleman argues that “poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity.” He mentions that Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told the New York Times, “I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.”

Morgan made a similar observation when studying the psychological differences between cognitive strategies of the “sharpener” versus the “leveler.” The former is one who tolerates ambiguity, thinks symbolically, and juggles various aspects of a whole, whereas the latter explicitly categorizes sensations, levels (suppresses) differences, and — as Morgan summarizes — “finds the unique, unclassifiable sensation particularly offensive.” She found that trained poetry readers engaged in significantly more “sharpener” thinking than “leveler;” they were better equipped to analyze material with open-ended and obscure meanings. This sort of expansive thinking is critical for executives, in helping them transform data into usable material, and make decisions that contribute to a company’s success. Every business encounters complex problems, and complex questions demand complex solutions. A “sharpener” thinker is more likely to arrive at such solutions because they can derive meaning from vague, dynamic arguments — as one does when reading poems.

Poetry can spark your creativity

“What was once central to corporations — price, quality, and much of the left-brain, digitized analytical work associated with knowledge — is fast being shipped off,” writes Morgan. “Increasingly, the new core competence is creativity.” Business people are strategists; they employ creativity to attain optimal solutions that may be hidden from structured, analytical procedures. Regular poetry readers have been proven to use a different aspect of their brains when thinking about how a poem works, allowing them to better harness their intuitive senses. This very intuition feeds creativity, satisfying the ever-growing need for radical solutions.

Where do these radical ideas come from, and how does one find them? The ideation of a poem is an obscure process with many shapes — inspiration can enter as “a sudden sharp hot stink of fox” or float into mind as a slow, idea-laden cloud. It might come as a bolt of lightning, a “eureka!” shout, or silently creep onto the poet’s page unannounced and unassuming.

Nobody can perfectly track how all creative ideas are born, but there are ways in which you can prepare to receive inspiration, to set yourself up to be more susceptible and vulnerable to a jolt of creativity.

Poetry can train you to be more empathetic

Regular poetry reading trains you to empathize, to connect with the writer, and to feel around in another character’s perspective. Every time you read a poem, you put yourself in the speaker’s conscience, in their eyes and nose and toes. You could argue that success in business also relies on the ability to genuinely understand the experience of another person. Employees at all levels in all industries benefit from increased empathy: Marketers must understand buyers, venture capitalists must understand founders, managers must understand associates, etc. Empathy toward a customer allows you to recognize business opportunities and profit from them. This connection made between seller and buyer, between poet and reader, is the bond that empathy bridges. It is the bond that reveals shared interests in a negotiation or closes an agreement after lengthy deliberation.

Business and poetry are obviously incredibly different subjects, but the business world shouldn’t simply dismiss poetry as an alien, flowery topic. Ultimately, it may be precisely the contrasts between the two subjects that cause poetry to be so useful a tool to business thinking. Conflicting ideas often work well in tandem because each helps identify and boost the other’s weaknesses. So perhaps it takes a discipline as dissimilar as poetry to help us find better ways to think about business.

Thinking thoughts about creativity’s best & most elegant uses. Wandering nonlinear paths in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Stanford ’19 rosaliechang.com

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