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  • Writer's pictureMassimo Portincaso

Why CEOS need to read poetry—yes, poetry—to lead in the post-COVID world


Leaders will need to be resilient, open-minded, and creative. Poetry can show them the way.

“I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers … Live the questions now.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

The health and economic emergencies brought by the spread of COVID-19 present business leaders with twin challenges, equally urgent: They must manage their organizations in crisis while simultaneously reimagining their companies at a time of heightened competition, social discord, and unrelenting uncertainty.

In other words, leaders are being called on to engage in a new and extremely challenging kind of dual thinking—to live the questions now, while simultaneously developing answers for an unknown and brutally complex future. We can think of no better tool for this important mindset shift than poetry.

Poetry requires of its readers a different way of thinking, more expansive than usual, more flexible, more nuanced; a way to tune in to undercurrents, accept ambiguity and the absence of answers—embrace lack of closure and relish complexity and uncertainty. A poem does not have one meaning, but many meanings, all in play simultaneously. It is therefore open to many—often conflicting—interpretations. Fine distinctions in language underpin the poem’s subtlety. We do not ask, what does this poem mean? We may ask, what does this poem amount to? Any answer arrived at will be provisional.

A poem is meaning in motion, a constantly transforming gem held up to the light.



Well before COVID-19 was even a speck on the horizon, more agile and resilient thinking modes had been identified as essential in confronting an increasingly complex, volatile, and uncertain world. By 2014, complexity, measured by looking at the frequency with which companies mentioned different kinds of performance requirements in their business reports, had multiplied sixfold since 1955. And the related complication facing decision makers had, in the past 15 years, increased between 50% and 350%, according to research by Boston Consulting Group. More broadly, global uncertainty was at an all-time high, with the Global Economic Policy Uncertainty Index riding above 250, having risen from an average of around 90 in the 2000s and 156 in the 2010s.

The rise of artificial intelligence brought even more tumult to the competitive landscape.  The first wave of AI was dominated by easily measurable variables like efficiency and financial outcomes, with machines absorbing “mundane” tasks that were time consuming but readily automated. Pressure mounted for managers to generate new ideas to address less-than-measurable situations—the very scenarios the machines could not easily replicate. Leaders needed to increase the rate of learning and creative ability (for instance, to be able to decode and respond to long-term trends). Thinking, in management and leadership, was in need of radical change.

Business leaders themselves were recognizing this need. The importance of agile, adaptive or “creative” thinking skills was underscored starkly by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who put it this way: “I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans . . . I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers.” He followed this up, by way perhaps of an explanation, in an address to graduating Tulane students in 2019, by suggesting that they “push back” against algorithms that promote the “things you already know, believe, or like.” In other words, Cook was proposing that we need to think in an exploratory, forward looking, “what-if?” way, rather than relying on the tried and tested, the known, and what “has been.”

Post COVID-19, future uncertainty—and the unpredictable nature of the present—is likely to continue with no evident end date. Business priorities will shift from efficiency toward resilience, which in turn will increasingly require attention to multiple stakeholders (think employees, suppliers, and communities—in addition to shareholders) and an ability to collaborate in the common interest.  Leaders will need to embrace a broader set of perspectives than may, so far, have customarily been the case.

Given these circumstances, never has the ability to think creatively, and imagine fruitfully (for example in operating and strategizing over a range of timescales simultaneously, or re-envisioning the optimization of both societal and business value) been more at a premium.  Never has the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t exist yet, been so much in demand. The ability to ask, as Rilke is suggesting, the right questions–active, expansive, exploratory—will be a vital imperative. But this gear change, from (perhaps) a data-driven, algorithm-inspired reliance on what has been, to the challenging freedoms of what-if? What then?, is unlikely to be achieved overnight and without the intercession of some potent catalyst. That catalyst, we humbly submit, is poetry.

The game-changing potential present in poetry has already been recognized by some prominent business leaders. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman has been much quoted in his revelation to the New York Times that he prefers to hire poets, as they are “the original systems thinkers.” Satya Nadella–CEO of Microsoft and responsible for one of the most successful turnarounds in history–admits to being an avid poetry reader, and has tellingly equated poetry with “that force created within us that seeks out the unimaginable, that gets us up to solve the impossible.” Even more directly, Jason Nanchun Jiang, founder and CEO of the multibillion-dollar Focus Media Holding, says his passion for reading and writing poetry has helped nurture business innovation. It is, he says, his “secret to success.”

It’s been striking, during the COVID crisis, to what extent the general populace has turned to poetry for consolation and emotional sustenance. On radio, on Twitter, in online forums, in informal groups, and even in some business situations, poetry has been shared as a resource to turn to.

But emotional sustenance is only one small aspect of what poetry has to offer post-COVID. Science has now shown what poets have long claimed and what open-minded business leaders and others have empirically detected: that reading poetry has a measurable and positive effect in augmenting thinking and decision-making processes.

Researchers at UK Liverpool University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore the neural and cognitive basis of literary awareness in a group of participants. Their study, “Shall I compare thee”: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition, found that “enhanced literary awareness is related to increased flexibility of internal models of meaning, enhanced interoceptive [emotional] awareness of change, and an enhanced capacity to reason about events.” Poetry in particular stimulated areas of the brain that may be related to tolerance of uncertainty, and the study concluded: “The sustained experience of reading poems might be expected to challenge rigid expectancies and fixed thoughts and to increase mental flexibility through the process of reappraisal of meaning and the acceptance of fresh meanings.”

In other words, scientific opinion has now added its voice to the growing chorus of those advocating poetry as a means of developing flexible thinking. Scientists have now rigorously monitored and measured how the “demands” a poem makes of its reader can encourage a nimble mindset, one that, in its what-if capacity, is crucial to identifying new paths for growth, for seizing and creating new opportunities. It’s a mindset that can more effectively address the challenges of making decisions based on radically incomplete information in a volatile post-COVID environment of unprecedented complexity.

Persuasive though this evidence may seem, executives leading their companies out of adversity toward the new reality will, more than ever, want to know what it will mean to take the leap and make however modest an investment in poetry as a means of helping them shape the future. What are the effects of poetry? Do participants undergo shifts in attitude that indicate positive outcomes in terms of an organization’s mindset? Does poetry boost creativity? Enhance imaginative capability? Does poetry help open the route to new ideas? Can poetry help create an environment where people have sufficient confidence to put forward unthought-of suggestions, far removed from the tried-and-tested, which might–just might–be the key to innovative ways forward?

Questionnaire responses from a range of workshops undertaken over several years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, indicate that typically around 80% of participants reported agreeing or strongly agreeing with the proposition that working with poetry can encourage engagement in “thinking differently,” being “more flexible,” and feeling “more confident.” In a project with a UK government ministry that extended over two months, two-thirds of participants reported that they–and their thinking–had gained from the process, citing specific value in terms of better acceptance of ambiguity, a recognition of multiple perspectives, and a greater appreciation of the importance of language.

While this data is from a small numbers base, it aligns with the outcomes of the Liverpool fMRI study. It also gives a positive indication of the practical benefits accruing from engagement with poetry, benefits which chime tellingly with the pressing needs, present and future, for an open, imaginative, what-if? mindset, one which, to use Satya Nadella’s words, “seeks out the unimaginable . . . [and] gets us up to solve the impossible.”

In a post-COVID world demanding highly qualitative and creative decisions, unthought-of solutions, and an imaginative dexterity that surpasses anything so far needed, poetry’s requirement to engage with multiple levels of meaning simultaneously, to exercise fine judgements, to apprehend nuance and translate conflicting imperatives into workable solutions, can help us move from merely adapting to the new environment to proactively reimagining and shaping it.

“Poetry,” according to the businessman-poet Dana Gioia, “is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”

If Gioia were writing that right now, he might have added business leaders to his list. In the post-COVID environment it is even more important to think critically and seek multiple possible interpretations of the “messages” coming across to you. How individual companies—subject to intense scrutiny of their social relevance and contribution—act and communicate will be vital to any future success.

Our business executives, managers, and leaders need to be able to think critically and communicate clearly—and to generate a narrative of hope that refreshes public faith in what business stands for, while at the same time energizing day-to-day thinking and business practices to forge a new, vital, creative edge.

Poetry, in its insistence on “living the questions,” is a potent means of acquiring these crucial thinking and communication skills. Rather than a gimmick or a frivolous luxury, poetry is a necessity in paving the way from merely surviving to actually thriving in uncharted circumstances.

Massimo Portincaso is a partner and managing director in the Berlin office at Boston Consulting Group.

Dr. Clare Morganis a writer, educator, and the author of the book What Poetry Brings to Business (The University of Michigan Press, 2010). She has run poetry workshops for organizations worldwide, and is a Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, where she directs the University’s creative writing program.

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