Perhaps the greatest proof of CEO Roundtable's high regard for poet
David Whyte is the fact that nearly 50 Greater Boston CEOs braved frigid
temperatures, frozen car doors, and up to three-hour traffic delays to
hear him speak at CEO Roundtable's annual retreat at Babson College's
Executive Conference Center. In fact, this is the fourth time Whyte has
met with this group, by overwhelming CEO demand.
Whyte, known as "the poet to the boardroom," championed the need for what he calls "courageous conversations." He explained, "The courageous conversation is the one you don't want to have."
Why such resistance? Whyte believes it's because human beings cannot fathom the great losses they will encounter. Most courageous conversations revolve around change: a change in the market, a change in demand, a change in direction, a change in focus or the approach to the organization's core values. These changes represent a loss - something that was there before is not there now.
Whyte warned that the conversation will happen with you or without you. Each leader is surrounded by a set of questions that are so important that they "have no right to go away."
The CEOs were then challenged to have the courageous conversation within themselves. How do you shape your leadership to have that conversation? Can you create a conversational identity that is paying attention and prepared for the conversation as it comes along? Can we create a conversational identity that is not caught in the past but rather is consistent with the current reality?
Whyte told the CEOs that to have these conversations, the old identity must make place for the new. For many, that can be the loss and the reason for resistance. The CEOs themselves offered examples of the truthfulness of Whyte's statement. One CEO said he had to ask himself if he might be part of the problem.
"There is no conversation without vulnerability," Whyte said. And different relationships have different vulnerabilities. It is humbling in the workplace to admit to not having all the answers and needing help. Yet that in itself is a way of extending the invitation to have a courageous conversation. And, similarly, it takes strength to hear a voice that is not your own, Whyte acknowledged.
In fact, Whyte said tension itself may actually help put the conversation on the table.
Drawing on Shakespeare, Dante, Aldous Huxley, Robert Frost, his own poetry, and the poetry of others, Whyte offered language, perspective, encouragement, and empowerment to the CEOs to take on the courageous conversations. For Whyte, poetry is "overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew," and it becomes a powerful means for summoning up and identifying what needs to be addressed and how to address it.
Ultimately, Whyte told the CEOs, you are looking for self-knowledge and a willingness to push to an emotional connection.
Inspired by Whyte's poetry and discussions, seven CEOs created their own poems during a breakout session...
between heart and mind horizons lie
oft in sight yet out of reach
past lessons of life, my soul retreats
darkness echoes in the empty space
sounds and visions of life compete
valleys and peaks of introspection
heartfelt voices from silence leap
revealing paths before unseen
beyond horizons, where courage lies
Whyte concluded the two-day retreat by reading his poem "Mameen," published by Many Rivers Press in 2007 in his book River Flow: New and Selected Poems, which ends with...
Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.
Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.
Of added note, several years ago, the CEO Roundtable retreat used jazz as a metaphor for the way business is actually conducted: running riffs and jamming rather than working from orchestrated pages of music. An open invitation was extended to the CEOs, if they had any musical inclinations, to bring their instruments and join in. When a group of CEOs accepted that invitation, it became an annual retreat tradition to have a music fest to cap off the first evening of the two-day session. This year, the group "SIX," composed entirely of CEOs, treated the entire gathering to an evening of exceptionally well-played classic rock. Not only was the performance excellent, but it was another
example of a courageous conversation - knowing what you love to do and then having the courage to do it!
For more information about David Whyte, visit www.davidwhyte.com and to learn more about CEO Roundtable