My son-in-law works in the federal government. He often describes the difficulties of working in a bureaucracy. When he does, he tends to also describe some form of self-management. Despite daily negative events, he has consciously developed tools to keep positive. His examples are impressive and his constancy is inspiring.
He recently wrote that he loves poetry. He keeps a notebook in his backpack just for writing poems. He says. “Every time I pull it out and open to a blank page, I feel a sense of freedom: I could write about anything. For example, the other day I tried to write a poem about this weird old lever on the metro floor covered in grime. I just wanted to see if I could.
“Samuel Coleridge once said: ‘I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.’ That idea—of seeking the best words and putting them in the best order—is one I love. I am grateful for the challenge of poetry and the avenue for expression it provides me.”
Why does writing poetry give him a sense of freedom?
Writing poetry is a discipline. Discipline is pattern of self-regulation, self-control, or self-restraint in which we exercise the will to do things we would not naturally do. We have physical disciplines, intellectual disciplines, spiritual disciplines, and social disciplines. When we internalize a discipline, we behave in new ways and we get new results. The results invite us to new beliefs. We make new assumptions about the nature of the world and our ability to influence the world. When our assumptions change in this manner, we acquire new capacity. We let go of convention and we find the freedom and power to create what we could not previously create.
In the case of my son-in-law, poetry is a challenge and an avenue of expression. It is a transformational discipline. He can look at a lever covered with grime on the floor of a subway and it becomes a stimulus for creating a new image. The image is created by putting the best words in the best order. In this example, the mundane becomes a stimulus to create something new and extraordinary.
Positive influence is a discipline. Conventional organizations are built on fear and they work to sap human integrity and commitment. People live in a survival mode. At work we all need to learn self-management disciplines that will renew us. Each of us can develop tools and apply them with constancy. An important tool that any of us can employ, regardless of position, is positive influence.
The exercise of positive influence requires self-management. One must transcend the ego. One must look on the mundane organizational interactions and see them as a lever covered in grime on the subway floor. Seeing possibility that no one else sees, one must go deep inside and locate the best words and put them in the best order. One must actually become a living poem.
A living poem is a person who has exercised the discipline to see possibility in convention, exercised the discipline to find his or her most authentic words, and exercised the discipline to give them to us with love. When we encounter a living poem we pay attention, we feel challenged and inspired. If we then become a living poem, we feel free because we transcend convention and live in the state of meaningful contribution. Life takes on greater meaning.
My son-in-law could be defined as a low-level bureaucrat. From the conventional lens, no one would think of him as a leader. A leader is a person of hierarchical position. I read the accounts of his day-to-day experiences at work and I see the personification of a positive influence. He is a leader, a living poem.
Managers know that their job is to solve problems and maintain order. Positive leaders know that their job is to create a workforce of people like my son-in-law, leaders at every level who infect each other with positive energy. Because the vision is so unconventional, because the capacity is absent, we have many managers and few leaders. Each of us might do well to look at ourselves as a lever on the floor covered with grime and exercise the discipline to turn ourselves into a living poem.
- What disciplines have I internalized and how have they made me free?
- In what way is my organization filled with levers covered with grime?
- Who in our organization is a living poem?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?