Conversational Leadership: An Irish Poet Walks into a Boardroom…

Mist path

An Irish poet walks into a corporate boardroom… Sounds like the set up to a bad joke, doesn’t it? Only, boardrooms all over organizational life have been where poet David Whyte has spent a great deal of his life. Whyte, an associate faculty member at Oxford’s Saïd School of Business, has consulted with giants like Boeing, Arthur Anderson, and NASA. His mission has been to bring back the soul to spaces known more for spreadsheets than sonnets.

In The Heart Aroused David writes: “Corporate America now desperately needs the powers historically associated with the poetic imagination not only to see its way through the present whirligig of change, but also, because poetry asks for accountability to a human community, for rootedness and responsibility even as it changes. The twenty-first century will be anything but business as usual. Institutions must now balance the need to make a living with a natural ability to change. They must also honor the souls of the individuals who work for them and the great soul of the natural world from which they take their resources.” Whyte, David (2007-12-18). The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (Kindle Locations 209-213). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

For the last eight months, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a cohort David leads on what he calls “Conversational Leadership” through the Invitas Foundation on Washington’s magical Whidbey Island. At one point in our time together David anticipated the skeptical question brewing in my head: what on EARTH would possess a corporation to hire a poet as a consultant?

David responded to this unsaid but very present question, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Why would a company hire a poet? Well, what’s the nature of leadership but seeing things that others aren’t seeing yet? That’s poetry. What’s leadership but using language that cuts to the bone to articulate this unseen vision? That’s poetry. What’s leadership but having the courage to say what feels unsayable whether because it’s not popular or too frightening? Well that’s poetry.” (And then I can’t remember, but it’s possible he added his signature hair flip when he delivered that last, exquisite line.)

David anticipated an entire field of organizational thinkers like Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence and Primal Intelligence among others), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality) and others who appreciate the role emotion and the realm of the soul play in organizational life have developed. In Change By Design, graphic designer and CEO of IDEO Tim Brown writes: “Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous.”

While the church relies less on analytics and metrics decision trees and other obviously rationalistic tools, leaders shaped by modernist frameworks believe if we could just get people’s theology right or get them to interpret the scripture more faithfully (or at all), then all would be well. If only it were as simple as getting people to think the right thoughts… But of course we aren’t purely rational. We are fully human with complicated, powerful, and mysterious emotional lives that color every perception and decision.

In the next few blogs I’m going to lift up Whyte’s elements of conversational leadership. As Irish conversations twist and turn, real, live, dangerous conversations don’t follow any linear order, however there is a kind of sense to this pattern: stopping the conversation; cultivating a friendship with the unknown; coming to ground; cultivating robust vulnerability; artistry; making the invitation; and the harvest of presence. 

Of course as we trace the outlines of what this incarnational, conversational leadership looks like, it’s nothing like seven easy steps. It’s much, much better. It’s messier, perhaps, but better. But who would trust anyone who promises a clear path through something as challenging, beautiful, painful, and needed as real leadership?


There is No Path that Goes all the Way

-Han Shan


Not that it stops us looking

for the full continuation.


The one line in the poem

we can start and follow


straight to the end. The fixed belief

we can hold, facing a stranger


that saves us the trouble

of a real conversation.


But one day you are not

just imagining an empty chair


where your loved one sat.

You are not just telling a story


 where the bridge is down

and there’s nowhere to cross.


You are not just trying to pray

to a God you always imagined

would keep you safe.


No, you’ve come to a place

where nothing you’ve done


will impress and nothing you

 can promise will avert


 the silent confrontation,

the place where


your body already seems to know

the way, having kept


to the last, its own secret



But still, there is no path

 that goes all the way,


one conversation leads

 to another,


one breath to the next



there’s no breath at all,



the inevitable

final release

of the burden.


And then,

wouldn’t your life

have to start

all over again

Whyte, David (2007-01-01). River Flow: New & Selected Poems . Many Rivers Press. Kindle Edition.