Management narrative: How poetry informs business

Dec 12, 2012

Several years ago, when Beedie School of Business senior lecturer Kathleen Burke was browsing through a colleague’s extensive book collection, she stumbled upon a book called Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.

Burke, who at the time was preparing to teach a business leadership class, was moved by the way author and poet David Whyte integrated poetry into his reflections on work and identity and how his perspectives related to what she would be teaching.

“I knew right away that this would be my leadership text,” she said. “Once I had that book of stories and poems, everything else fell into place. Bringing poetry into the classroom changed the pedagogical possibilities in terms of how I hazarded myself as an instructor and asked from the students.”

While her inclusion of poetry in a management class is relatively rare, it is a practice that is garnering growing acceptance. In a recent article entitled The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals, Harvard Business Review author John Coleman made the case that reading and writing poetry can be a valuable component of leadership development.

For SFU’s Burke, who recently joined the Beedie School after a decade of teaching ethics, leadership and decision-making courses to mid-career professionals, poetry is now a regular fixture in her undergraduate class devoted to business, society and ethics.

Originally from the southern Indiana city of New Albany, she has a longstanding affinity for poetry, both as a reader and writer of verse. Growing up in the U.S. Midwest, her grandmother would regularly recite poems to her from the likes of Indiana author James Whitcomb Riley. “At the time I never thought the poetry would have great resonance in my life,” she says.

Today, poetry is integral to her teaching. “In the University and in my consultation with organizations, I routinely incorporate poetry,” she says. “I find it wakes people up.”

Poetry and the writings of David Whyte in her leadership class, she maintains, “deepened classroom conversations, and helped the students be more imaginative in the way they conceived and engaged leadership.” She adds that “with leadership, you want to cultivate a bit of vulnerability. In order to be creative and stretch yourself, you have to be vulnerable.”

In her undergraduate business ethics class at Beedie, she has introduced her students to the poems of the late Kansas poet William Stafford, described by the New York Times as the “poet of the West” and whose literary response to the world “came in lines that focused each poem on a single objective.”

“Overwhelmingly the feedback I get from students is that the stories and the poems – those are the things they remember the most,” she says. “Especially teaching business ethics, stories and poems allow us to obliquely, but notably wrestle with moral complexities; they provide points of reference and offer insights that work their way into you over time.”

And while the poems aren’t the sole focus of her classes, they are a useful tool to cultivate new perspectives and a more engaged learning environment.

“If I recite a poem, the energy in the room shifts in the most recognizable way,  whether the students are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s,” she says. “Poetry marries nicely with academic insights – it becomes a powerful prompt for engagement and reflection.”

Harvard Business Review’s Coleman would likely agree. His recent HBR article maintains that reading and writing poetry helps managers foster creativity and empathy, and the ability to wrestle with many issues in a complex business world.

“Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments,” he writes. “Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.”

Entrepreneur Brad Cran, a former Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver, concurs. In responding to Coleman’s article, he writes that “all of my successes in business owe a debt to the critical thinking skills that I refined by writing and close reading poetry… It allows you to see deeper meaning in information that others would overlook. And it does increase your ability to empathize, which is also an undervalued skill that has invaluable worth in many aspects of life, including business. ”


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