Leadership in the workplace is more than a minor genre in business books. For decades, stretching back at least to the 1920s when “management” began to emerge as a “science, ” leadership has been a serious business subject to study, pursue, get a degree in, and apply. (Peter Drucker, for example, began writing on the subject in the late 1930s.)
What workplace leadership should–and shouldn’t–do has changed over the years, much as workplace structures have changed and are still changing. Corporations, for example, approached management in the command-and-control image of the military; consider the origin of “staff” functions we’re so familiar with in organizations today. The military metaphor fit a mass-production economy.
Command-and-control management didn’t inspire much poetry, but it did give birth to a considerable number of novels.
The Metaphor Began to Change
The management metaphor began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. The famous “plastics” scene in the 1967 film The Graduate signaled a shift–the business executive telling the young Dustin Hoffman to pursue a career in plastics and his words making no sense to Hoffman whatsoever. The command-and-control boss knew all the answers and all the questions, too. This paternalistic system began to fall apart in the 1980s when the promise of orderly and lifetime employment began dissolving in the reality of waves of restructurings and downsizings.
This conflict and human drama could have easily been the subject of poetry, but it largely wasn’t, perhaps a result of poetry being firmly ensconced within academia.
What did happen was a wave of focus on “best practices” led by management consulting firms. One of the bibles of this wave was In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, until people began to notice that the companies singled out for excellence didn’t all remain successful.
A Hard Time to Be a Boss
This was a hard time to be a boss. So much was changing; so much conventional wisdom was being thrown out. This was the period when poet David Whyte published The Heart Aroused : Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. His was one of the first works directly connecting the questions of the workplace–the big questions–being answered in some way by poetry. (We wrote about Whyte and his book a few weeks ago here.)
What’s been developing as one possible new model is the network–more than one expert has noted that we tend to organize our workplaces along the lines of the prevailing technology. Email and the internet have changed everything yet again. Senior executives and middle-level bosses can be second-guessed like never before–and often are. Executives giving bad speeches are live-tweeted. Missteps and failures (and embarrassments) live forever on the web. And yet facets of the command-and-control structure are still with us; not every decision can be made by a team.
So what’s a boss to do? How does he or she manage in a complex, unsettled, fluid workplace? Muddle through, ignore reality, or, as Whyte suggests, read Beowulf?
A Poem About the Boss
So consider your boss. Or perhaps, more safely, consider a previous boss. Whether the experience was a good one or a bad one, consider that boss through a poetic lens. In other words, write about that boss in a poem, using the form of poetry to explain, celebrate, understand, or even forgive.
Here’s my effort for a former boss:
Stares at the corner where
two glass walls meet, almost
the exact point where the sun
sets, caught in the rise
of his people asking, probing
how and more and the descent
of this own boss seeking cuts.
He chooses the way
he’s been taught, looking
upward, knowing there’s little
reward in the daily, where
Post your poem here in the comments, or on your blog and link here, and we’ll choose one or two for a possible feature next week.
If your experience with the boss was a bad one, strive for understanding. But venting is okay, too.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $2.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In December we’re exploring the theme Haiku.