The Leader as Poet

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

—From Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Leadership is an ideal.  We can approach it, but never achieve the perfection it demands, because we are human beings, flawed, fractious, and fallible.  Leadership is like poetry, imaginative, illuminating, and inspirational, always seeking the transcendental realities of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is no coincidence that a world that has turned its face away from poetry is a world plagued by the loss of leadership in homes, schools, workplaces, communities, and nations.

The great poets, from the mists of antiquity to the turmoil of our own times, furnish incandescent insights into the human condition, fanning the flame of leadership that is ineradicable in every human heart. Poetry expresses truths inexpressible in the prosaic factoids and formulae of postmodernity’s mechanical mindset.  As Plato told us: “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

—Czeslaw Milosz in Dedication

Experiencing the brutal regimes of both the Nazis and the Soviets, Czeslaw Milosz created some of the 20th century’s finest poetry, earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.  Exploring ethics, politics, history, and faith, his verse influenced several generations of poets in both East and West, and inspired the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in Poland, providing a model for the poet as socio-political visionary.

Inflamed by the words of a master poet, even a moderate talent can give evocative expression to the dynamics of leadership:

Behold the selfless striving for the Good,
Intent upon the flourishing of all;
Imbued with wisdom, practical and bold,
Courageous and alert to every call
Of justice, and the touch of tempered steel,
The reasoned cultivation of the whole,
You stand on truth and dare to know the real,
The raw potential and the visioned goal,
And gifting people standards from above,
You lift their hearts in faith, and hope, and love.

–Anna, Edith, Sophie by Andre van Heerden

Edification from ageless poetry bears lessons both subtle and severe for those who would shoulder the burden of leadership.  Homer’s Iliad, the formative epic of the Western Canon, unveils the tragic view of life that recognises human limitation and the inevitability of suffering.  Hector knows that Troy is doomed, but remains resolute in doing what duty and virtue demand.

Life is hard, but once we come to grips with the reality, it ceases to be the burden that it is for people who hold the opposite, utopian, belief that life is meant to be easy.

The tragic view enables one to embrace the adventure of challenge and adversity, helping us to grow and fulfil our true potential.  Setting high goals and standards – informed by truth, goodness, and beauty – and striving to achieve them, lays the very foundations of human flourishing and achievement.

For in my heart and soul I know this well:
A day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear;
Even so it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come
That weighs me down, not even of Hecuba herself,
Or King Priam, or the thought that my own brothers,
In all their numbers, in all their gallant courage,
May tumble in the dust, crushed by enemies –
That is nothing, nothing beside your agony,
When some brazen Argive hauls you off in tears,
Wrenching away your day of light and freedom.

—Hector to Andromache in Homer’s Iliad Book VI (tr. Robert Fagles)

The great English poet, W.H. Auden, once observed, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”  And there are very few things that are more human than mixed feelings.  In Virgil’s epic, Aeneid, the hero struggles with a dilemma that has tormented leaders throughout history: having escaped the destruction of Troy, he allows himself to be diverted from his vision of founding a new Trojan state in Italy by an overheated love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage.  Though for obvious reasons it is all too often the case, sexual and/or romantic liaisons are not the only diversions that ambush leaders in mid-quest, particularly in an age that, in the words of T S Eliot, is “distracted from distraction by distraction”.

The pious prince was seiz’d with sudden fear;
Mute was his tongue, and upright stood his hair.
Revolving in his mind the stern command,
He longs to fly, and loathes the charming land.
What should he say? Or how should he begin?
What course, alas! remains to steer between
Th’ offended lover and the pow’rful queen?
This way and that he turns his anxious mind,
And all expedients tries, and none can find.
Fix’d on the deed, but doubtful of the means,
After long thought, to this advice he leans:
Three chiefs he calls, commands them to repair
The fleet, and ship their men with silent care;
Some plausible pretense he bids them find,
To color what in secret he design’d.
Himself, meantime, the softest hours would choose,
Before the love-sick lady heard the news;
And move her tender mind, by slow degrees,
To suffer what the sov’reign pow’r decrees:
Jove will inspire him, when, and what to say.

—Aeneid Book IV (tr. John Dryden)


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Poetry as a leader’s guide? This should never be a novel concept, as all through history the poets have been, in Shelley’s prophetic words, ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ From Beowulf to Blake, and on to Billy Collins, John Ciardi, and Mary Oliver, real leadership principles are right in front of us. Thanks for this piece, very heartening.


  2. Andre,
    The comparison of poetry and leadership is spot on to me. It is the ultimate expression of what one is able to do when in as humans we try to deal with confusion, turmoil or even sheer ecstasy. It’s that urge to write expressions down. To escape into problem solving, or sometimes, just have an interview with your inner self. The time you spend writing to and from your soul is like a deep conversation with the universe. Sometimes you are given the message to questions that bother you.
    Poetry allows us to connect with that powerful presence of truth and morality. It sends powerful reflections, an escape to needed distraction. In that distraction you find revelations. There is peace and therapy in writing. The sense of accomplishment after is soothing. For me that ability to go within and pull from the soul is a leadership quality. When the pen calls and you answer, you are paying attention to your own leader. If you cannot lead yourself then what business do you have leading others?
    I find that poetry allows us to address the issues in the world around us with a license to say what we want in the guise of poetry too. A little rebellion affording the world of correctness vs that of vindictiveness, there is an edge we walk on. The real interview is a letter to yourself abd from yourself at the same time. That two way conversation where one is checking in with the moral reality of what is justified in your own heart.
    Poetry is the voice by which we express what is in our soul.
    I cannot speak for all, there are different ways for which people use it or partake in it.
    The bottom line for me is that it helps. In revealing my inner dialogue I’m being vulnerable, and that shared is an offer for others to think about and connect with their inner leader too.
    We dream with intelligence and live in ignorance when we ignore the heart and what it stands for.
    The gift of expression is one where the poet answers their call, and the sharing of the vision from a dreamer who dares the world to question.
    Being a true creative is being able to share your creation knowing that every viewer is looking at it through different lenses, your view is your own.

    I like the idea of shooting blanks at those who want to know what your work means. I giggle as I’m known as the word Jedi poetess with the golden word guns… I shoot and let it go. People will get it in their time. We are all different and learn differently too. If I but provoke the thought…then that’s a start.

    Your article corresponds to me that living is poetry
    In the lines we capture there is an answer
    That license to do anything at all with the freedom of expression, is the greatest lesson.
    One can live in prison but find freedom in the lines written.

    Being a poet, I could go on, I’ve expressed a plethora of words on poetry injected with morality
    My true leader was me and not the ones who tell me what to do. That freedom was written down in my poetic interviews. To ask questions, mold my theories, to attempt to understand and to interact with Mother Nature and the whole idea of belief. When you discover true belief in yourself, that is the leader you cannot live without.

    Your article captured my attention, and here are my thoughts.
    Thank you for this mornings musings my friend.
    I do have words in poetic phrases that say it my way, and here you present it your way.
    Thank you for this discussion. I appreciate your words and feel more proud of what I do after reading it.

    Have a great day my friend
    Poetry is indeed leadership 😀

    • Wow! Thank you very much indeed, Paula. Your comment (the word is hopelessly inadequate in this context) should be an essay of wisdom and grace all on its own. May it be widely read, engaging hearts and minds all around the world. Picture me standing on my chair applauding.

    • Wow from me! Andre, thank you so much. I thought it was long but I just wrote the discussion you provoked in me here. The thoughts I have are built and formed, always open to change, but the foundation remains the same….that your inner leader has something to say. The more you visit your own leader, the better you become at being a follower. Albeit, lead yourself first. Thank you again and I’m so grateful for your discussion. Have a great weekend my friend🙏😀