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What Poetry Brings to Business

'What Poetry Brings to Business' (Clare Morgan, Ted Buswick, John Barr (Foreword) and Kirsten Lange, University of Michigan, 2010) is a much reviewed and well respected book.

'Roses Are Red, Money Is Green' by Carolyn M. Plump and William Van Buskirk, both from La Salle University, USA provides a detailed review of the book. The review article reproduced below was first published in Journal of Management Education: Volume 39 issue: 2, page(s): 297-304. Issue published: April 1, 2015. Online it was first published on May 29, 2014.

Description of the Book

In her recent book, What Poetry Brings to Business, Clare Morgan (2010) makes a compelling case for using poetry to educate business students. She encourages business educators to incorporate poems in their curricula as a nonconfrontational way to explore a wide range of values, attitudes, and issues. Critical analysis of poetry, she argues, prompts students and managers alike to open their minds to (a) novel and previously inconceivable possibilities for decision making, (b) the potential for more creative, strategic problem solving, and (c) the development of ethical discernment in business situations. To make these points, Morgan uses pertinent, real-world examples of how poetry has played a role in the development of some of the most successful enterprises and initiatives around the globe. She intertwines these accounts with poetry selections containing relevant themes and discussion touch points.

Morgan describes how she uses the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins in her workshops to encourage individuals to envision possibilities that do not yet exist. She uses this poem to exemplify the importance of examining and embracing poetry in a fearless, joyful, and wholehearted way rather than trying to reduce it to a single meaning based on logical and deductive reasoning. Her workshops foster an ability to approach situations with an open mind, to hold various meanings in one’s head simultaneously, and to make decisions with less than complete information. Thus, careful and communal examination of poems can expand one’s understanding of what management should be about. They build a critical skill for business students entering a rapidly changing, globalized business world in which situational ambiguity is the new norm (Essex & Mainemelis, 2002; March, 2006).

Similarly, Morgan examines the poem “Stop All the Clocks” by W. H. Auden to highlight her second point about the importance of creativity in problem solving. Although the poem can be seen as a statement on how one feels when a loved one dies, she highlights how such one-dimensional interpretations are inadequate by themselves (as are many business decisions based on one factor alone). By considering other themes such as public grief, depression, isolation, exaggeration of one’s own feelings, harm in building one’s life around one person, and feelings of powerlessness in the face of death, this poem encourages more expansive thought and conversation (Morgan, 2010). Indeed, as Morgan explains, poetry “fosters the development of a strong competence in discovering and perceiving news paths and connections. It can help develop a mind-set that explores and questions rather than accepts” (p. 109).

To make her third point, regarding how poetry helps incorporate ethics into business discussions, Morgan travels to West Point where instructors use poetry to deepen ethical discussions among cadets. In an institution that focuses on strategic warfare, poetry seems an incongruous course of study. But Morgan introduces the reader to General Lennox, who uses poems (e.g., Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”) because they expose the “competing values and conflicting emotions discoverable in the compressed language entity of the poem, which can positively inform the same conflicting values and emotions that will face the leader in battle situations” (p. 184). She extols the prospect that if poems are suitable for America’s future military leaders—charged with handling complex global conflict—they also have value for future business leaders—setting out to manage in a complex commercial world.

How the Book Can Be Used

Morgan’s book is ripe with possibilities for engaging students in business classrooms. In her transcripts of discussions with organizational leaders around the globe, she models her way of working with poems. In her workshops, poems work through evocation and reflection. An effective poem spontaneously evokes a wide range of emotions in the reader; and it is by discussion of these here-and-now reactions that the significance and power of the poem is truly felt. This combination breeds an ethical perspicacity through which we believe Morgan stands to influence future generations of business leaders.

Morgan also provides examples from academia and consulting. She introduces Harvard Business School’s Joseph L. Badarocco Jr., who uses literature to impart the basics of ethical leadership to his MBA students. Literature allows Badarocco to address complex situations by exploring characters who have to grapple with competing moral and pragmatic considerations when making decisions (Morgan, 2010). Because these characters operate outside traditional business settings, students are more open to exploring ethical issues. Accordingly, this exercise helps students understand how managers also have to balance competing ideals and divergent perspectives when making decisions that affect multiple stakeholders.

In another instance, Morgan notes how Jim March, Emeritus Professor of Business Strategy at Stanford University, uses poetry as an antidote to protect against reducing everything to a question of profits. She summarizes his view as follows:

[T]he “romance” of business—the bottom line, market share, competition—needs to be balanced with the “reality” of the world in which business activity has necessarily to take place. A world of people, motives, needs, hopes, desires, despairs, affections. A world of power, of problems, of aspirations, of inequalities. A world of violently differing views and voices, of beliefs, standards and ethical dimensions. A complex, shifting world where boundaries are constantly crossed and frontiers dissolve almost as soon as we look at them. (p. 188)

This point was crystallized in an exercise in which Morgan describes the process through which an information technology organization evaluated William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” In this poem, the speaker experiences ambivalence and inner turmoil as he weighs clinical decisions against raw emotions and makes what he believes is the most just and humane decision regarding a dead deer and her baby fawn. Morgan provides the transcript of the group’s discussion, which reveals a candid and free-flowing exchange of ideas and disagreements. Days after the session, she received a note from the chief executive officer who participated in the event. He lauded the session, yet described it as “difficult at first, because that’s not the way we usually approach things in I/T. It was hard to resist trying to put everything in order so that it made logical sense” (Morgan, 2010, p. 62).

Bolko Von Oetinger of the Boston Consulting Group had the following to say about a similar group discussion of Stafford’s poem:

“Every participant was drawn into the dilemma, the ambiguity of the situation and the struggle to find the moral response. . . . In one of these gatherings—with engineers from a major automaker—the discussion brought the group together in the way that intense shared experiences do but in a fraction of the time. We started out superficially acquainted, but after living together for two hours inside the narrator’s head we suddenly knew one another in a completely different, deeper way. . . . We discovered that we were ready to take another look at our own views, recognized the weight of the others’ arguments, and struggled with them and ourselves. We had all left our comfort zones and were together in a liminal situation looking for a way out.” (Morgan, 2010, p. 2)

Morgan references these programs to underscore her point about how business thinking—with its focus on structure and rationality—can obstruct broader ways of seeing situations.

The Book’s Strengths

Morgan contends that poems provide a powerful medium for triggering unexpected perspectives in both students and instructors. Whereas traditional materials reach students on an intellectual level by providing them with business knowledge, poems challenge them on an emotional level with ethical quandaries they can respond to honestly and without fear of appearing politically incorrect or naive. In other words, it takes students out of the profit paradigm and into the realm of empathy because it disposes with the “danger of losing face” (p. 192). Therein lies its potential: to affect an ethical business consciousness.

What Poetry Brings to Business has several strengths. First, the examination of poetry teaches students not what to think but how to think. Because modern technology provides everyone with access to the same information—at least in theory—it is what one does with such information that can make all the difference. Learning how to collect, analyze, synthesize, and use information is paramount in a volatile and complex world with different political, cultural, economic, and legal systems. The constant framing and reframing of experience that lie implicit in poems constitute a kind of dress rehearsal for the kind of thinking demanded of executives.

Second, poetry demands openness to uncertainty and risk. This is because poetry may not have a “right” answer or only one answer. Encounters with poetry can empower business students to navigate situational ambiguity by encouraging them to look behind words, directives, and statements to the actual intents and purposes embedded in situations. This skill has many practical business applications, including motivating employees, obtaining agreement on ideas, and reaching effective resolutions.

Next, poetry develops empathy for others’ perspectives. The ability to see an issue from another person’s viewpoint is an essential management skill in a business world increasingly dominated by (a) outsourcing, (b) collaborating with individuals throughout the international community, and (c) navigating global imperatives. The critical analysis of poetry provides a way for students to access perspectives that lie outside current business models.

Finally, poets and executives face the same conundrum—how to reach the maximum audience through powerful language that addresses questions of utility and relevance of one’s current perspectives. Reaching an audience through the morass of information confronting consumers on a daily basis is even more urgent in our current digital world. Studies indicate the world’s data double every 2 years (IDC Digital Universe Study, 2011) and approximately 2.5 exabytes of unique data were created each day in 2012 (McAfee & Brynjolfsson, 2012), which is more than the previous 5,000 years (Esteves, 2013).1 Therefore, poets and executives need to be intentional in their marketing efforts to stand out among this deluge of information.

The Book’s Weaknesses

Any discussion of this resource would be inadequate without scrutiny regarding the potential weaknesses of employing poetry in the business context. For one, businesses are most effective when their leaders are decisive rather than equivocal, and speak with certainty rather than doubt (March, 2006; Weick, 1995). Even when leaders subsequently are proven wrong, commentators often continue to applaud their unwavering conviction. By contrast, poetry abhors resolution; indeed, its very nature embraces ambiguities and contradictions, both of which can be the enemies of assertive action.

Second, poetry analysis requires a significant time commitment. People who read poems know it requires a considerable amount of focused effort before one can appreciate the true connotations implicit in their meanings. Unless designated time and space are set aside, the business world does not easily afford the luxury of time for this type of reflection. As reported by The New York Times, a 2009 study by the University of California suggests the average American consumes 34 Gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day. . . . This means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period.2 That information comes through various channels, including television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games. (Bilton, 2009)

Accordingly, the challenges of making decisions in the era of big data are substantial enough (McAfee & Brynjolfsson, 2012) without additional demands for one’s time.

Third, although poetry can give rise to ideas, business has to be grounded in realistic, cost-effective solutions rather than theoretical possibilities. Allowing employees to contemplate, express, and act on every idea could lead businesses to realizing none of their ideas. In the book Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen (2011) note that extraordinary companies demonstrate three core behaviors, one of which is empirical creativity. They quickly caution, however, that although every great company requires a certain minimum threshold level of creativity, once beyond the minimum threshold level there were diminishing returns. Thus, the contemplative thinking poetry engenders could stymie business decisions. In short, traditional business education teaches one to follow practical leads in a disciplined manner based on company goals and interests. Poetry at its best provides a language for thinking outside the box. It is a language of vision, insight, and empathy. Balancing these two modes of talk may provide a significant challenge for professors and managers alike (March, 2006).

Although there is no one method for ensuring the success of future business leaders, What Poetry Brings to Business offers compelling reasons for supplementing current business curricula. Given that business and poetry both seek to create order out of chaos, it is reasonable to conclude the world of management stands to benefit from the perspectives discovered in poetry.


Bilton, N. (2009, December 9). The American diet: 34 Gigabytes a day. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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Collins, J., Hansen, M. (2011). Great by choice. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

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Essex, E. M., Mainemelis, C. (2002). Learning about an artist from organizations: The poetry and prose of David Whyte at work. Journal of Management Inquiry, 11, 148-159.

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March, J. (2006). Poetry and the rhetoric of management: Easter 1916. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15, 70-72.

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Morgan, C. (with Lange, K., & Buswick, T.). (2010). What poetry brings to business. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Usefully the article goes on to provide resources for Further Study

Articles That Use Metaphor

There is relatively little written on the use of poetry as a pedagogical device in the management classroom. What do exist are articles that use metaphor, one of poetry’s dominant tropes, to engage student interest and comprehension. Some examples include the following:

Leuchauer, D., & Shulman, G. (1998). Using a metaphor exercise to explore the principles of organizational culture. Journal of Management Education, 22, 736-744.

Starr-Glass, D. (2007). Exploring organizational culture: Teaching notes on metaphor, totem and archetypal images. Journal of Management Education, 28, 356-371.

Taber, T. (2007). Using metaphors to teach organization theory. Journal of Management Education, 31, 541-554.

Two articles use poetry and poetic metaphor directly:

Van Buskirk, W., & London, M. (2012). Poetry as deep intelligence: A qualitative approach for the organizational behavior classroom. Journal of Management Education, 36, 636-668.

Van Buskirk, W., & London, M. (2008). Inviting the muse into the classroom: Poetic license in management education. Journal of Management Education, 32, 294-315.

Poetry in Corporate Settings

For an informative account of using poetry to shape and energize conversations in corporate settings see Whyte, D. (1994). The heart aroused: Poetry and the preservation of the soul in corporate America. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Work-Related Themes

Three poets who use work-related themes in their poems:

Autry, J. (1989). Life after Mississippi. Oxford, MS: Yoknapatawpha Press.

Garrison, D. (1998). A working girl can’t win. New York, NY: Random House.

Levine, P. (1992). What work is. New York, NY: Knopf.

Poetry Websites

Three highly informative websites devoted to poetry:

Poems for Classroom Workshops

For more information, the authors of this article will be glad to send a list of poems used in classroom workshops to anyone who is interested in this topic. Email us at (William Van Buskirk) or (Carolyn Plump).


1.An exabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

2 To put 100,000 words into perspective, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is approximately 460,000 words. Thus, in 2009 alone, Americans were exposed to the equivalent number of words in War and Peace every 4 to 5 days.


You can find this review on the Journal of Management Education webpage.


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