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ON THE FRONTIERS OF LEADERSHIP
by David Whyte
Leadership gets a great deal of emphasis these days,
though as a poet I often ask myself if there is a better word,
or a better avenue of enquiry than putting all of our eggs in that
one basket of exploration. Leadership dominates our conversations
in organizations—large, small, entrepreneurial, or academic.
I am often asked: "What is the secret of leadership?" as
if it were a static piece of information rather than a dynamic
relationship between an individual and the world. Some believe
that if you simply adopt certain traits—being decisive, taking
bold risks, or articulating a clear and compelling vision of the
future—you will have the very stuff of leadership. But do
any of these commonly observed traits make up that magic ingredient
that invites others to join or follow an individual? It is my opinion
that they are not enough by themselves. They are isolated diagnostic
characteristics that a given leader may have, but to my mind they
are not the heart of the matter.
The Art of Conversation
At the very heart of leadership—indeed, at its very soul—is
the art of conversation, the ability to create a dialogue that
others will willingly join. Any good conversation extends an implicit
invitation for those who join it to meet at some as yet indefinable
frontier, and through that joining to be part of the process of
defining that new frontier. The best conversations make clear distinctions
between what has gone before and what is now possible. They give
the sense that we are part of something that is enlarging us or
our organization rather than confining us.
Conversations are very powerful tools of action and
change for the leaders who initiate them, as well as for the employees
who participate in them. Conversation as an approach to work is
also merciful, as it does not ask us to take on more weight or
responsibility; it simply asks us to stay involved, to keep the
conversation going. I as an individual do not have to come up with
the answer; the answer will be overheard in the conversation. It
is the selfsame dynamic a writer confronts on the blank page. Create
an edge through your writing and something will happen. Organizing
the happenings is then also part of the craft, but it is the productions
of that original and often fierce conversation with the unknown
where the genius lies. Trying to get people engaged in a particular
task, for example, is often impossible through coercion or legislation.
Human beings do not often change gladly to do others' bidding—whether
it's to change their behavior or to increase their productivity
or to pursue the many goals of the organization. What we can do,
however, is to create a conversation that is invitational to our
own and other people's best powers, that releases imagination,
creativity and energy.
Most of us want a real conversation—real, meaningful
conversation that is courageous, and that pushes the frontiers
both for ourselves and for those who work for and with us—but
good conversation can be a very rare commodity, especially in the
postmodern workplace. When we are not firing off bare-bones e-mail
notes, we may find ourselves surrounded by impotent platitudes,
superficial chatter, or—perhaps saddest of all—a wary
and suspicious silence. Good conversations by definition break
through the everyday surface chatter and invite people to the larger
context. With meaningful conversations, leaders push to the very
edges of their workaday worlds—and sometimes far beyond,
taking their employees and their organizations along with them.
But first we have to apprentice ourselves to a language that is
large enough for the world we want to enter. In Madame Bovary,
Gustave Flaubert described how an individual human being attempts
to transform the world when language is inadequate:
" The human language is like a cracked kettle
on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with
our music to move the stars."
What music do we have inside us to move another person,
never mind the stars?
Witgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of
the 20th century, said a marvelous thing, taking Flaubert's image
" You cannot enter any world for which you do
not have the language."
It is a very instructive question for a leader to
ask: What language do we need for the world that we want to enter?
It is exactly the approach Peter Block took when he first took
the radical step of inviting me as a poet to work alongside him
in the corporate world. He said, "I just heard in the poetry
the language that is large enough for the world that we are all
entering." Of course, it is not a lexicon of words; it is
by its nature a dialogue, a new conversation, one we haven't had
before and one that will ask us to forsake our old identity for
a new one. Conversation—specifically, courageous conversation—has
the power to make unspoken aspirations a reality.
If you ever doubt the all-pervasive presence of conversation
in work, inspirational or not, simply consider this example: I
often conduct programs for corporations and other organizations
around the world. And no matter where in the world we are—whether
Oxford, Switzerland, the Philippines, or the United States—whenever
there's a break in the program, everyone's phone lights up the
moment they switch it on and they're immediately walking up and
down outside the seminar room waving one hand in the air and participating
in far-flung conversations. At any level of responsibility in the
organization, the conversation is not about the work, the conversation
is the work.
I have often myself wondered what makes a leader
a leader. I've read many grand theories and listened to all manner
of explanations for what could be at the heart of leadership. Over
the years, however, I've whittled away at almost everything that
I've seen, read and learned about leadership, and I'm left with
one foundation: the art and the science of conversation. There
is a whole phenomenology to human conversation that is in all our
great mythic and imaginative traditions in poetry, art and literature.
And if you look closely, you'll find that as people reach very
high levels of responsibility in organizations, almost everything
they want to achieve is through conversation. It is to this discipline
we must now apprentice ourselves.
Consider, for a moment, the example of political
figures. The higher people move up the political ladder in government,
the more politicians try to achieve, the more dependent they are
on the conversation they create between competing powers—Congress,
Parliament, or any number of commissions, bureaus, councils or
What is most astonishing to me, however, is that
despite its central place in our work lives, we spend almost no
time apprenticing ourselves to this art, as if conversation were
not a discipline we could improve on or learn. So we find, especially
in engineering or research-based organizations, for example, that
top managers may have risen up from the engineering or accountancy
ranks. They are very competent in their particular discipline but
also completely at sea when it comes to holding a personal or organization-wide
conversation. They are suddenly given large areas of responsibility
that do not seem to be amenable to the push of a button. At this
point they have an absolute necessity to learn the whole phenomenology
of conversation, but it may, at this late stage in their careers,
not even appear on their conscious map. This is not just an unfortunate
personal circumstance; it can be extremely detrimental to the morale
and performance of the individuals affected and, of course, to
the organization itself.
Pushing the Frontiers of Performance Through Courageous
Conversations are at their most powerful when they are at our own
frontier, and when they invite other people to their own frontiers
at the same time. The best conversations are on an edge—we
feel as if we don't fully know the pattern with which we are engaged,
and other people feel that excitement too. When we work on the
edge of the unknown, other people find it intriguing, and they
also most likely find it authentic, because we're not pretending
to know everything about the direction we're headed. So the question
at the very heart of effective leadership is this: How do you create
real, authentic conversations that are invitational to others?
I try not to think about leadership and work in the
abstract. I always try to tie it to the necessity for a larger
world for which our work will never provide an ultimate context.
It's individuals who must bring a larger context to their work.
Qualcomm will never give us our sense of self. It will give us
only a subset of that sense of self. Boeing will never be a true
home for us. It will give us only an understanding of certain kinds
of homes we can make in the world, but, ultimately, we have a much
larger horizon available to us.
No matter how large a company, it's never large enough
for even one human soul, and we must work particularly hard to
bring the part of us that doesn't belong to the company through
the door. Not only does the organization need us to do that, it
is an essential part of leadership, too. If I work for Hewlett-Packard,
I must bring in the part of me that doesn't belong to Hewlett-Packard
for the company to have a future that is not defined only by its
past. If we think about it in very practical terms, the individuals
entering the door every day are the only thing that will save the
organization from itself in each succeeding generation.
If we believe that an organization has to reinvent
itself periodically to grow and to thrive, that reinvention can
never come solely from the context we have already established.
It must come from another context, and that's where our life—and
our inheritance, our sense of humor, our eccentricities, our joys—should
not be confined or defined by the narrow dimensionality of what
we happen to do at work. We have to fight for our life, really—every
human being has to fight for life in succeeding generations of
existence, just as a company must.
Five Conversations on the Frontier
Five simultaneous conversations are essential to the art and discipline
of leadership. You can get a hint of what these courageous conversations
are by asking yourself, "What is the courageous conversation
that I'm not having right now?"
The first courageous conversation is the conversation
with the unknown future—what lies over the horizon. Artists
have had to do this for centuries. If we just paint or write what's
already known, we're essentially creating clichés, the equivalent
of those oil-on-velvet paintings sold by vendors in seaside tourist
towns. Someone like William Blake, however, was writing 200 or
300 years ahead of his time. Emily Dickenson was on a psychological
frontier we are only just beginning to explore, and Shakespeare
was writing to a horizon that may be still perhaps 200 or 300 years
beyond us. Because these authors are, in effect, writing over the
horizon, they have to be able to put together the pattern when
only certain elements of the whole are actually in front of them.
In the poetic tradition, this is known as the faculty of the imagination,
the ability to understand and give an image to a whole pattern
when you have just a few disparate elements immediately before
If you think about it, that's exactly what a postmodern
entrepreneurial leader has to do. If you wait for all the evidence
to be on your desk before you act, the most likely way that you'll
know the evidence is all there is through a competitor's product—someone
will have taken the leap before you. Each of us has to learn a
little more about living on this frontier, learn how, in essence,
to live with the unknown.
So, what's the courageous conversation you're not having with the
unknown future? If you consider this long and hard, you'll discover
that you actually have two parallel conversations; one is the unknown
future in your work, and the other is the unknown future in your
The second conversation is the courageous conversation
you're not having with a present customer, a patient, a vendor,
who all represent the future as it's lapping up against the side
of your organization. It's the people I or my organization are
serving or supplying on a daily basis.
The third conversation is the courageous conversation
you're not having between different divisions of the organization.
I remember a wonderful moment last year on the plane reading the
Financial Times. On page two, there was an announcement that Ford
had bought $600 million in platinum futures because it was afraid
the price of platinum would go out of sight (which it soon did).
But another article buried somewhere in the back of that very same
issue of the Financial Times reported that another division of
Ford had figured out a way of cutting the need for platinum as
a catalyst by half.
I remember thinking, "I wonder if the left hand
knows what the right hand has been doing?" And sure enough,
it didn't. A few days later there was a lot of embarrassment exhibited
in the very same paper; Ford had bought twice as many platinum
futures as it needed. Not having the conversation in the organization
is incredibly expensive—both in dollars and cents and in
the human spirit.
The fourth courageous conversation is the conversation
you're not having in your work group, among your colleagues—people
you see every day, or people you e-mail or talk to on your mobile
every day. This is the leverage point for much of your work life,
the place where you tend to measure the effect you are having on
others, good or bad. It is often the first place we think of when
we are asked where we might have one of these creative, courageous
The fifth courageous conversation-the one that I
believe all others are predicated on-is the courageous conversation
you're not having with that tricky moveable frontier called yourself.
What are you refusing to look at, what are you refusing to face?
How have you changed? What do you want for yourself and those you
love? Most often, it's refusing just to face up to where you have
arrived on the curve. You most likely will find you have not kept
up with the core changes. It seems to be a core human challenge;
we almost never stay up with ourselves.
My last book of poetry, Everything Is Waiting for
You, is really all about that phenomenon of catching up with ourselves.
I often think that the difficult traumas in life occur when you
slip increasingly far behind the curve of yourself, until something
happens suddenly to close that gap, a loss most likely, that grounds
you very quickly into the present. You catch up with yourself in
an instant but because of the previous distance you hit your present
life with an incredible velocity—and literally fall apart.
If, however, you've kept up with yourself, step by step, really
paying attention—which in reality is a kind of spiritual
or leadership discipline—then you're not so shocked by change,
and the transformation can happen more like a ripening.
The need for courageous conversations is greater
today than it has ever been before. The hierarchies of old have
crumbled and fallen away in most organizations. Our perceptions
have matured, and we don't swallow the old stories so easily, and
leaders are often left essentially naked before their supposed
followers. People—especially in the younger generations—have
so many more choices available to them, and they are far more mobile
and healthily impatient than previous generations. Good, creative
people can go elsewhere and find other jobs at the drop of a hat.
Coercion has little or no impact on these people. Instead, leaders
must engage these employees in ways that have real authenticity.
That authenticity can be tested again and again from all sides,
by asking this simple question: Am I part of a real conversation?
That is a question to which almost everyone wants, at the core,
to give a sincere and enthusiastic "Yes!"
Poet David Whyte grew up
among the hills and valleys of Yorkshire, England. The author
of five books of poetry and two best-selling prose books, The
Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate
America and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of
Identity, he is one of the few poets to take his perspectives
on creativity into the field of organizational development, where
he works with many American and international companies. He is
an associate fellow of Templeton College at the University of
Reprinted from Leader to Leader #33, Summer 2004.
Copyright 2004 by the Leader to Leader Institute.