There seem to be a dispiriting number of examples of failed leadership this year. GM responded too slow to ignition switch safety problems in its cars. The Secret Service failed to keep an intruder out of the White House. Ex-IRS head Lois Lerner chose not to address allegations her agency was on a political witch hunt. The NFL downplayed domestic abuse allegations about its stars.
In each case, leaders acted too late or did too little to prevent catastrophe. People were hurt, lives were imperiled or lost. Bad decisions spiraled into weeks- and months-long scandals, and no leader was willing to fill the power vacuum, to solve the problem and teach everyone a lesson in the process.
When our leaders — elected and appointed — are unwilling to do the jobs they're hired for, people look elsewhere for leadership. In her recent Washington Post column "On Leadership," writer Lillian Cunningham featured someone whose oratory won't be found on primetime news, whose dictums couldn't be sliced into neat, ten-second sound bites: US poet laureate Billy Collins. Collins talked about his reliance on poetry to navigate especially difficult moments where leaders and philosophies fall short.
At critical points in our lives, at funerals or weddings or other rituals, often a poem is read. The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we're feeling today is not just our emotion, it's the human emotion.
Collins — a professor as well as a poet — said poems store invaluable in succinct structures. "With poetry, you don't have to go through a windshield to realize that life is precious. Poetry keeps tapping you on the shoulder with that same message," Collins said.
But Collins balked when Cunningham asked whether poets made good leaders.
CUNNINGHAM: Do you think poets can be leaders? Or is the term wildly ill fitting?
COLLINS: I think poetry takes place in a quieter place. Leadership to me has kind of a public ring to it. (...) Leadership to me suggests that there's a place to lead the person to, that there's a mission or a goal involved. I don't think poets are that purpose driven.
Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, author of Ernest Shackleton Exploring Leadership, disagreed with Collins' sentiment. Koehn said poetry and art are the essential field manual for leaders to learn from and, later, to teach others. "Shakespeare, or W.H. Auden, or Rilke — the great 20th-century European poet — [or] even T.S. Eliot have a huge amount to teach leaders," Koehn said. "It's about, ultimately, the formation of ourselves, the backbone of our character, the sense of expansiveness, (...) the human experience."
"How can leaders help others climb on the high road — get right with their best self — if they can't do that for themselves?" Koehn wondered. Koehn pointed to two famous Shakespearean scenes instructive not only for crisis leadership, but for everyday — even mundane — decision-making.
The first scene was Hamlet, Act I scene iii. "Polonius is giving advice to his son Laertes, and it is a short soliloquy — it's about 20 lines — and it is the stuff of life," Koehn said. "Everything from how you dress, to how you need to listen more and talk less. It's a set of leadership must-dos."
The second scene was Henry V, Act III scene vi. "The young King Henry hangs an old drinking buddy of his called Bardolph (...) because he'd been stealing from the church. Several of his friends go to the King and petition him saying, 'You must save this person,'" Koehn said. "And he doesn't."
"'It doesn't matter that he's my friend. He broke the rules. I cannot let him go unpunished,'" Koehn said, paraphrasing King Henry's speech. "'When levity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.'"
Koehn said elected officials could stand to brush up on their Shakespeare.
>> To hear the entire interview with Nancy Koehn, click the audio link at the top of the page.