The Poetry of Management

As I set out to plan my Management 302 curriculum for the fall 2019 semester, I felt an urgency to treat the class as if it could as easily be taught in a humanities curriculum as in a business school.

Management 302 is a required course for all non-management majors. That is to say, it is the one opportunity in the undergraduate business curriculum for future accounting, finance, marketing and supply-chain professionals to engage exclusively with the subject of the human experience at work.

We look at individual motivation, personality and values. We explore team and relationship dynamics. We encounter leadership, emotional intelligence, culture and change. All of this in an effort to wake students up to the truth that the professional experience is only fractionally about one’s professional competency and much more broadly about one’s capacity for self-awareness, communication and adaptability.

You can imagine, then, why I always feel a sense of urgency in preparing for this class. Given a scant 2 hours a week over just 3 months to make the point, I have to be highly strategic in creating an experience that will outlive the classroom long into each student’s career.

Key to the effort this time around was my choice to operationalize my passion for poetry and use it to lead off each class session. I researched and selected a poem that was relevant to that week’s subject matter, recited it first thing and then asked the students to openly reflect on its application to our material.

I did not anticipate the usefulness of this approach, not only in helping us access the course material but in helping us to access a group-wide reservoir of empathy and insight. As poetry has the capacity to do, it changed the tone and depth of our conversations, it lifted my energy and purpose as an instructor and it still allowed us to maintain the necessary structure around what was still a discussion rooted in the needs of effective business operations.

Below is the poem I chose to kick-off the semester. Introducing the class overall and our initial subject of organizational effectiveness, my intent was to immediately jar my students from the comforts of the provable into the abstraction that is the primary reality of any human life.



The World I Live In
{Mary Oliver}

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.


statue angel cemetery

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

1 or 120?

The answer is “1.”

Why? Because human beings are bad with big numbers. (See Paul Slovic’s work here.)

I have a class of 120 students this semester. It’s a sea of faces, thoughtful and present in the aggregate but difficult to appreciate in a more personal way. To address this challenge I assigned a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester to help me get to know who’s in the room; course of study, employment, family, personal challenges, learning preferences, favorite books and movies.

From their responses I select 25 or so and invite them to meet with me during office hours. This is a game changer.

To look into the eyes of these individuals, to learn more about them, to get a brief education on their particular form of humanness, this changes everything about the large class experience. Now, as I take in the full class assembly I see individuals first. They have become names and stories and aspirations, not just another number on a printout.

I will not get to know them all. I will not remember that many of their names. And those who I do meet and connect with will continuously serve to remind me that each of them deserves to be known and remembered, regardless of my inability to do so.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.