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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth MacBride

Poetry: The super secret weapon of CEOs

(Credit: Purvi Joshi/Getty Images)

The poetry picks of CEOs

John C Bogle, the retired chief executive of the world's largest mutual fund company, Vanguard Group in the US, has long kept a copy of the poem Ozymandias by his desk. The sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley is about an Egyptian pharaoh's decaying statue: "that colossal wreck," standing in the lone and level sands.


Bogle said that the poem reminds him to "play down the arrogance, pal. What you've built will not last forever. Nothing lasts forever."


Bogle is a fan of other poets, too, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Poetry helps him be introspective, he said via email after an interview in his office, and helps him balance all the competing interests of growing a company. "People matter, and caring about the human beings with whom we serve--and whom we serve — must be the soul of any institution worth its salt. I'm guessing that Ozymandias wasn't much into caring — except about himself and his works."


Bogle set up Vanguard as a non-profit, a unique-in-the-industry structure that means its profits don't go to Bogle or a parent company, but are returned to investors in the form of lower fees. The company, with $3.3tr in assets and clients in more than 80 countries has the lowest average fees in the industry, according to research firm Morningstar Inc and some 46,000 people follow Bogle's moral and investment precepts on the internet forum Bogleheads.


John Bogle reads Ulysses for inspiration. (Credit: Vanguard Group)

You might think of poetry as an esoteric art form that has little relation to business, but Bogle isn't alone in finding value in rhyme and verse. A surprising number of CEOs say they gain a lot from them. In a chaotic, competitive world, poetry is an escape, they say. Its crisp language and distillation of complex ideas helps executives adopt a certain way of thinking about the broad concepts, challenges and possibilities the executives themselves face each day.


"It's about managing ambiguity," said Clare Morgan, director of the creative writing program at Oxford University. "A poem is a thing you can walk into, explore, find out about and keep pushing its boundaries back."


Music of the mind


Morgan, the author of What Poetry Brings to Business, runs workshops for executives who want to use poetry to clarify their thinking. The concept has become so popular among executives that Morgan has had to away business since the publication of her book in 2010 (she also teaches and writes novels).


(Credit: Thinkstock)

Researchers at Devon, UK - University of Exeter who are studying the way the brain responds to poetry call it "music of the mind". Their research so far shows poetry stimulates brain areas linked to introspection, and that emotionally charged writing affects the brain in the same powerful way music does, producing the feeling of a "shiver-down-the-spine".

Other research has shown reading fiction increases empathy. A 2006 survey by Illinois-based Poetry Foundation in the US found that among people who read poetry, more than 90% did so in part because it helped them understand other people.


CEOs find value in poetry not only for relaxation and creativity like the rest of us, but maybe more importantly, as a way to gain a competitive edge because of how it helps them practice the introspection needed for insight. CEOs who love poetry often have particular lines they return to time and again. In interpreting poems, they say they sometimes gain creative insights or a fresh perspective into the challenges of running a highly complex business.


For instance, Bogle received an honorary doctorate at Princeton in 2005 and asked to give a speech, he instead quoted from Ulysses, which he knows word-for-word. "Hearts made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield," he quoted, talking about the character traits essential for leaders. One trait, Bogle said, is the courage to turn down short-term profits in order to stick to your long-term vision. Bogle famously turned down highly profitable short-term opportunities.


Seth Goldman, the founder of Honest Tea, a Maryland-based subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Co with more than $130m in annual revenue, said he regularly returns to Theodore Roethke's poem The Waking, which speaks to the connection between people and the physical world.


Seth Goldman retuns to The Waking by to Theodore Roethke. (Credit: Honest Tea)

"I learn by going where to go," he quoted during an interview in Honest Tea's office, in between talking about America's obesity epidemic, product testing and the company's new partnership with Wendy's.


"That line describes a sense of direction that combines a sense of destiny and the unknown, which is a lot of what being an entrepreneur to me," he added later by email.

"The phrase 'this shaking keeps me steady', connects with the feeling of uncertainty and change and helps keep me grounded," he said.


Clarity and cultural connectivity


Executives also use poetry to them to help clarify their thinking and connect across cultures, Morgan said.


At a workshop in Japan with the Boston Consulting Group, she helped executives who came from different strata in the work hierarchy talk about civil society through Robert Frost's Stopping By The Woods on a Snowy Evening.


"If you sit down and discuss a tricky issue like responsibility or trust, everybody is going to bring different baggage," she said. "Then you get people to talk about the poem. What's revealed is considerable. The risk to people is less, because they're not transgressing any boundaries."


One of the key questions in the Frost poem: Is the speaker an outsider? And what does it mean to be one?


Research shows poetry is also linked with brain centres associated with recollection, not just introspection. A poem can become a reminder of why they work so hard — valuable for CEOs whose day-to-day lives often feel like a never-ending parade of duties.


Ammar Aker (far right) says Mahmoud Darwish's poetry resonates. (Credit: Paltel Group)

Ammar Aker, the CEO of Paltel Group, a telecom company in the West Bank of Palestine with 3,000 employees and more than $500m in revenue, returns to a line by modern poet, Mahmoud Darwish, often translated to English as “We have on this earth what makes life worth living." 


He says the line resonates with him, and that poetry and the arts help take him outside the all-consuming nature of his job. On planes, he usually reads business books. But when he goes to one of the performances of music and poetry held in Ramallah, he's rededicated to the difficulties of living and working in Palestine, and running a publicly held company there. 


"It helps me make sure Paltel is a role model company... giving the young generation hope to look forward to." 

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