Leadership = Plumbing + Poetry

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James March, one of my teachers, defines leadership like no one else has. Even if you are not a plumber or a poet, you will get the picture. Leadership is a hard science as well as silken art.

Plumbing may sound boring, yet is very essential and life giving. Think of the water that the plumber digs out with all the hard work. Water is the universal solvent. It dissolves even hard rock like problems. Good leaders, like plumbers, dissolve problems by digging deep. The hiss and hum of water that runs through a water pipe is the raw energy that leaders harness. A leader needs to dig deep into the hearts and minds of the followers. In this way, leaders can mobilize human energy. The flow of energy builds momentum that can solve and dissolve very critical problems. Good plumbing ensures fluidity that harmonises a group of people into a high-performance team.

Plumbing demands efficiency and good judgement. It is the nuts and bolts of leadership action. Plumbing deals with the mundane and the methodical. You follow established procedures. Leaders who are plumbers have to take initiative, allocate resources, manage time and coordinate multiple activities.

While plumbing is the science of leadership, poetry is the art of leadership.

Poetry draws on insight, inspiration and imagination. Poetry kisses the soul of followers. Poetry gives meaning to mundane tasks. The leader as a poet connects with other people. She communicates her passion through words. Leadership is like a performing art through which the leader gains entry into the subjective world of the follower.

Great leaders like Gandhi can convert the hard struggle of civil disobedience against the mighty British Empire in the language of heart-rending poetry:

They may torture my body, break my bones, and even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.

Or, think of Winston Churchill’s first speech as Britain’s Prime Minister. Churchill put in poetic form one of history’s best battle cries against the Nazis:

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

Or, think of the American President John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 when he inspires his countrymen to embrace national service:

My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

Through poetry, a leader breathes life and meaning into what would otherwise be difficult work. Poetry makes a dull task look unimaginably beautiful.

Leaders idealize the real through poetry and then realize the ideal through plumbing. Reality has both a subjective and an objective side. Leaders have to learn to play in between these two fields like balancing on a see-saw. If a leader is too objective she cannot evoke passion in her followers. If she is too subjective her words will seem hollow and not backed by the concreteness of objective goals.

A nation that looks down upon good plumbing as a lowly activity and tolerates bad poetry because it is a pastime will have neither good plumbing nor a great vision: neither its pipes nor its principles will hold water.

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