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FIVE CONVERSATIONS 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 another step:

" 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 local authorities.

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 Conversation
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 you.

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 personal life.

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 conversations.

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 Oxford.

Reprinted from Leader to Leader #33, Summer 2004. Copyright 2004 by the Leader to Leader Institute.

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