Poet David Whyte teaches “conversational leadership” as a framework that helps organizations bring soul back into the workplace and more effectively navigate change, writes a Presbyterian pastor.
An Irish poet walks into a corporate boardroom …
It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, doesn’t it? And yet poet David Whyte has spent a great deal of his life in boardrooms, consulting with giants like Boeing, Arthur Andersen and NASA. Whyte, an associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, has been on a mission to bring back the soul to spaces known more for spreadsheets than sonnets. Whyte’s work isn’t merely about human resources and making people feel more happy and whole in the workplace; he believes an imaginative, relational approach to leadership is crucial for organizations navigating change.
“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,” Whyte writes in “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.”
All I would change is to add the church to the list of organizations in need of a poetic imagination.
In 2016, I had the privilege of being part of a cohort Whyte leads on what he calls “conversational leadership” through the Invitas Foundation on Washington’s magical Whidbey Island. In one conversation, I told Whyte that I loved poetry but was surprised that companies were so interested in hiring him as a consultant.
In response, he told me that the nature of leadership is seeing things that others aren’t seeing yet, articulating this unseen vision and having the courage to say what is unpopular or frightening -- and that’s poetry.
Whyte’s understanding of conversational leadership stems from his relational view of reality. For Whyte, there’s a conversation, or dialectic, between the selves we present and what’s inside us, between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and the world. The worst meetings we attend, he will point out, are the meetings where everyone gathers but no one is truly present or says what he or she honestly thinks. We withhold ourselves, with no one actually showing up and engaging with vulnerability or honesty. We aren’t having, in other words, a real conversation. We’re staying safe but accomplishing little in the process.
Whyte identifies seven elements of conversational leadership:
- stopping the conversation
- cultivating a friendship with the unknown
- coming to ground
- cultivating robust vulnerability
- making the invitation
- bringing in the harvest
This framework isn’t about reducing leadership to seven easy, linear steps. Instead, when we find ourselves stuck, these elements serve to stimulate our wonder and curiosity.
Stopping the conversation
When we aren’t satisfied with how things are going in our organizational life, one of the most powerful questions to ask, Whyte says, is, How do we stop having the conversations that have grown tired and are no longer serving us?
Fruitless, complaining conversations distract us from the vital, life-giving conversations that can take us into a new future. But new futures are frightening, wild places, well beyond what we can control, so even though we’re tired of the old conversations, most of us spend a lot of time having them -- gleaning the small, self-righteous satisfaction of blaming others behind their backs for their obvious incompetence and safely avoiding the risk of trying anything new.
While these tired, distracting conversations happen everywhere, the church is legendary for replaying them. If I hear one more church whine about not having enough young people … Or if it isn’t the demographics, it’s the number of folks showing up. I remember visiting a friend’s church and having a great experience in worship. But then during coffee hour, one of the regulars kept apologizing and telling me how great they used to be decades ago when they were, if I could believe him, bursting at the seams. I finally had to tell him to stop apologizing, saying that he was beginning to ruin what had been a great morning. I am confident this guy had been having that same, tired conversation for years, with every new person unfortunate enough to pick his table for bad church coffee.
And then there are the conversations we have with ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re capable of and what we aren’t. Whatever we tell ourselves repeatedly, no matter how false, begins to feel true over time.
Cultivating a friendship with the unknown
Once we have been brave enough to stop the old, tired conversations we’ve been having, a marvelous, threatening silence opens up. It’s marvelous, because this silence is the place where, as Whyte puts it in a poem titled “Sometimes,” tiny requests come to us, “questions that have no right to go away.” But this silence is at the same time threatening, because it opens us to the unknown, with questions that can “make or unmake a life.”
What we must learn, Whyte says, is to ask “beautiful questions.” Beautiful questions can be vast -- questions like, Can I live a courageous life? Whyte’s vision of courage isn’t about heroics but about being present for the life we are leading. Living a courageous life means showing up honestly, knowing that we can, and no doubt will, be hurt many, many times. How many opportunities do we miss because we’re afraid we might not succeed or might be laughed at for trying?
Sometimes when leaders ask beautiful questions, entire communities can be changed for the better. I live in a small suburb outside Portland, Oregon, called Tualatin (pronounced tu-WAH-luh-tin). While parts of Tualatin are thriving, the numbers of people experiencing poverty and food insecurity have been growing at an alarming rate. In a 10-year period, Tualatin went from having 1 in 16 people living below the poverty line to 1 in 8. Members of our community have been trying to help; churches like the one I serve have been instrumental in establishing our local food pantry. But we realize that food pantries are notorious for carrying inexpensive, processed foods that contribute to increasing rates of obesity. Further, helping people, while a good thing, can create a sense of dependence that isn’t positive at all. As the iron law in community organizing goes, never do for others what they can do for themselves.
Aware of all of this, one of our residents, Chad Darby, wanted to be of service, but he didn’t want to just participate in the same old conversation. Darby started by asking himself a beautiful question: Is there a way to feed hungry people healthy food and involve the whole community in the process? As an answer, Darby started Neighbors Nourishing Communities (NNC). NNC began providing volunteer local gardeners with seeds and growing instructions in exchange for 20 percent of their produce for use in the food pantry. Darby involved local homeowners, small businesses and city leaders, whom he asked to set aside city park land where low-income families now grow food. In the past year, 27 home gardeners and 14 low-income gardeners produced more than 2,000 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables for the Tualatin food pantry.
And this all happened because one local community member asked a beautiful question about how to help his neighbors in an innovative way. Of all the questions we can be asking, that is certainly one with “no right to go away.”
Coming to ground
People in ministry are generally hopeful. We’re a resurrection people in the business of impossible possibilities. But just because God is capable of parting rivers and raising the dead doesn’t mean that God will bring about every hope and dream we have for the church. Plans fail. Communities collapse. People die. And there are times, many times, when pastors cannot change these realities.
This is what Whyte refers to as “coming to ground.” In a poem called “Stone,” Whyte speaks of an immovability in a stone that “staunches your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere.” Whyte is encountering the fundamental otherness of the world around him, an irreducible “isness” that he can’t access, alter or rearrange. He can only stand in awe before it. When I was a pastor in Austin, Texas, I heard my colleague Fred Morgan tell a group of seminarians that ministry was about learning how to be impotent. While I watched the men in the room nervously shift in their seats, I sensed that the women were feeling anxious, too. No one likes feeling powerless. What Morgan was telling them was that the most important thing they could ever learn is that our job is to walk with people as they face situations no one can change -- the slow-motion train wreck of a divorce, the tragic spiral into addiction, the death of a child. Our job, our calling, is to abide with people facing these immovable, unchanging realities.
Cultivating robust vulnerability
I was once told by someone I greatly respect that I should consider not being quite so vulnerable in the pulpit. He was genuinely concerned for me, saying that down deep, people really want their leaders to appear strong and project a sense of certainty and confidence. Although he didn’t use these exact words, I think he was afraid that my honesty about my many mistakes and foibles could make me appear a bit too human.
I understand the problem with pastors who overshare in the pulpit. Some of our worst moments in church have occurred when a pastor used the power of his position to turn a potentially holy moment into something about him. Talking about ourselves can transfer emotional work to the congregation that is ours alone to process. But pretending to be less vulnerable or less human isn’t the solution. It’s not even a real option.
The fourth foundation of conversational leadership is what Whyte calls cultivating robust vulnerability. He writes in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”: “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without …; vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. … The attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others.”
I once heard Garrison Keillor tell pastors they should consider setting down their manuscripts and stepping out from their pulpits. We don’t do this, he said, because we’re afraid we’ll forget something. But, he quipped, we have to ask ourselves how important something really is if we can’t remember to say it. The only thing we really have to offer that’s worth anything, he said, is ourselves. And isn’t this the essence of Christianity, God setting aside what everyone just guessed was the very definition of divinity by assuming frail, vulnerable human flesh?
Artistry points to the irreducibly personal nature of leadership. One of the poems Whyte often recites is Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy.” In the poem, a boy stands alone in a familiar landscape of hills and trees and glittering lakes. He puts his hands to his mouth and makes owl sounds, hoping to elicit a response, and the entire forest erupts in a “concourse wild of jocund din!” This is that moment, Whyte says, when an artist or a leader discovers her unique voice to which the world responds.
I’ve experienced this most through preaching. Being a dutiful student, I absorbed all the rules and warnings of my Reformed tradition: always start with the text, do careful exegesis before asking questions, and be wary of being personal lest words about me eclipse the one Word of God. While I see the wisdom in these rubrics, I really learned to preach when I encountered Robert Dykstra’s “Discovering a Sermon: Personal Pastoral Preaching,” which encourages the opposite approach. Instead of starting with our exegetical heads, Dykstra says, preachers should begin with our wonder and curiosity. For me, this opened the way to finding my voice and actually preaching.
Making the invitation
Inviting another to have a real conversation may be the most significant of all the elements. This is the moment when, with robust vulnerability, we finally reach out to another. The way we cast these invitations shapes the way they are received. Without reflection, we will often over- or understate our requests, making it difficult for others to accept them. Much of the time at Invitas is spent crafting our various invitations, practicing them with another person or in a group setting, and receiving feedback from others about how they land.
Reaching out to others isn’t done by magic. It takes work, the willingness to hear feedback, and the openness and creativity to try new and ever-different ways to make contact.
Bringing in the harvest
Last fall, I attended the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising, a program of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. I’m not a huge fan of the word “executive”; even less, the word “fundraising.”
When I think fundraising, I think sales, and I didn’t go into ministry to sell people stuff. I don’t sell church. I don’t sell myself. And I certainly don’t sell God or salvation. Before this training, it always seemed to me that the churchy word “stewardship” was just an ecclesial euphemism for sales.
Before the course began, fundraising and poetry seemed miles apart. Fundraising felt like trying to get people to cough up what they didn’t want to give; poetry felt like being thankful, expansive and open to new possibilities. But what I learned is that fundraising, when done faithfully and well, is also primarily about thankfulness, expansiveness and opening to new possibilities. Fundraising, the course taught me, is never about guilt; it’s always about gratitude.
The program required me to develop a project to implement in my congregation. Every month now, I pray for a group of people and write each family a short note letting them know I lifted them up in prayer and explaining my petition. I don’t ask for money or thank them for money. I’m praying and giving thanks for them and their presence in my life, and I have seen an incredible response. Some people write back heartfelt notes, telling me my prayer came at just the right time. Other people I hadn’t seen for a long time have come back to church.
Leadership isn’t about having all the right answers but about showing up in vulnerable ways and having real, courageous conversations. Leadership is knowing, as Whyte says, that one conversation will lead to another. We are never “there.” We never “arrive.” We are, like the first Christians, people of the way.