Know Thyself: Learning Leadership through Poetry

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road

Empathy is probably not the first attribute that comes to mind for most people when they think about military leadership. Yet, it is fundamental to one’s competence as a military professional. Empathizing involves mentally and emotionally assuming the place and posture of another to comprehend their rationality. In strategy, as well as in mentorship, the ability to understand others’ motivations is critically important, but it is a difficult capacity to cultivate because it invades our internal safe spaces. Growing and maturing one’s ability to empathize involves perpetually scrutinizing how we perceive the people and events around us and how we then judge them.

Empathy is a fundamental leadership competence. (Stock Photo)

To be gainful, empathy requires far more from an individual than merely adapting the structure of their thoughts and aggregating additional knowledge. For strategists and mentors, it must operate from the wellsprings of one’s character rather than from formulae or other mental contrivance. The latter only avails one of the tertiary benefits of empathy, attending to the details of planning and mentoring, without unlocking the core benefits which make possible powerful conceptual and interpersonal insights. Thus, empathy is less a skill set taught than it is an attitude of thought independently learned through an abiding introspection and a willingness to open one’s mind and its workings to scrutiny.

Finding Empathy Through Poetry

Writing provides one of the few venues available for leaders seeking to develop themselves through inward reflection, and, to that end, poetry is writing’s finest vehicle for cultivating empathy. Analytic prose is limited in that it can make self-knowledge explicit only by delineating one’s cause-and-effect reasoning. Poems, however, can go where prosaic essays cannot. The shades of reality that can be articulated in verse resemble the qualities of intuition and instinct that rest more on the relationships between discrete facts than on the facts themselves. When poems are both inductive and meditative, they make self-knowledge honest by capturing those aspects of both perception and understanding that defy concise description or quantification. The insights produced in this way are less subject to biases and the manipulations that are sometimes applied to serve one’s preferences.

A mature professional’s identity as an expert and as a poet are symbiotic.

The value of poetry’s inductive, organic, process is merely aspirational, however, without the benefit of professional expertise. A mature professional’s identity as an expert and as a poet are symbiotic. The poet’s heart cannot itself culminate the search for empathy without the knowledge that brings an awareness of the world that exists beyond the boundaries of one’s own experiences and physical senses, but, without such a heart, there is no impetus for the journey to understand and, having understood, to act.

Applied Introspection

Heavy mist upon midnight darkness
the field of grass decorated by idle droplets
it’s as if the grounds were weeping
weeping for a fallen son.
The empty cradle rocks still
for the child grown man
now passed, never forgotten.
—Robert Mihara, “Vigil Grounds” (Apr. 18, 1998)

West Point in Fall (USMA Admissions)

Few moments in my life have been as moving as the memorial vigils at West Point. The vigils remain richly sacred memories for me. These rituals are a longstanding custom of the academy where cadets gather in front of West Point’s principal edifice, Washington Hall, to render honors when a cadet has passed away. In any given vigil, cadets file silently from the barracks to the parade grounds and stand at a position of attention. At the appointed hour, the first notes of Taps pierce the quiet, and one hears the rustle of thousands raising their arms in salute, like a great exhalation, and then, with a murmur that gently swells into a bellowing chorus, the Alma Mater is sung. Some linger a bit to reflect or to pray, but, one by one, the cadets return to the barracks as quietly as they had come, and routine reasserts itself.

I ended up writing several poems while meditating on these rituals and on the personal tragedies that they marked. I had been writing poetry for years before attending West Point, but the traditions of the academy and the responsibilities of leadership opened my mind to the relevance of my experience with poetry to me as a military professional. Specifically, as an officer apprentice, I developed a deeper appreciation for the art and discipline of reflection and its centrality to effective mentorship.

I was fresh from high school; some of my fellow cadets were former non-commissioned officers or just more mature than I was. Evaluating and coaching my near-peers compelled me to put my perceptions into context—to justify in a substantive manner why my advice should matter to someone of equal or greater life experience. The ability that I had cultivated in minutely critiquing my own thoughts and emotions through poems was directly applicable to counseling near-peers because it had prepared me to inductively see others as they were rather than deductively judging them as one’s expertise and title would determine, seeing as I had none of the former and scant claim to the latter.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
—Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

Poems uniquely introduce one’s mind to the substance of reflection, to perceptions of the existential character of things and phenomena, and to the personal attributes that give access to reflection’s benefits. Among those attributes, patience is the foremost in importance. Art, after all, is a discourse. Bringing art to life requires a commitment to the conversation without hastily leaping to an arbitrary conclusion or insisting on a resolution when one is ill-prepared to hear the answer. The necessity of discourse can be a particularly troublesome stumbling block for intelligent individuals when they are young and unchastened by experience.

Truth in poetry is co-created by the author, the phenomena observed, and the reader.

When I had the opportunity to teach history, I was frequently confronted with students fixed on pursuing complex truths through simple declarations or empirical proofs without first engaging the context that should inform their renderings of fact. These students declined to undertake their own journey of discovery, in part, because they believed that the truth could be received independent of their readiness to receive it. This belief in the portability of insight is in contradiction to the nature of complex insights in strategy, etc., and of the kind of authenticity that is uniquely illuminated by poetry.

Truth in poetry is co-created by the author, the phenomena observed, and the reader. It is thus innately subjective at the same time as it is objective in its authenticity—liberated from the foibles of its human interlocutors. The degree to which an author and reader subordinate their will-to-rationalize to the dictates of empirical detail and their impressions thereof is the degree to which subjectivity gives way to authentic discourse, and it is discourse which produces insight. Its fruit is not discernible until the listener has been matured and been brought to a place where the truth is comprehensible. Thus, reflection is a withered instrument without the temperament to accept incomplete answers and the discipline to not neglect unfinished explorations. One must be able to stay the course in its due time to reap the rewards that are the building blocks of judgment, and those rewards are the fruit of reflection.

Having patience for the discursive journey requires a mature appreciation for the nature of knowledge—to understand the cognitive relationship between the familiar and the new. Nothing we perceive is of a fixed quality. The dynamism of reality confounds those who approach strategy or people in a crudely positivist manner, ignoring humans’ limited ability to perceive. The nature of what we encounter through our senses is determined in large part by the phenomena swirling around the things we meet and the utility or purpose that we attribute to them. In composing verses, I am in fact creating the very context that defines the poem’s subjects.

It is the fundamental role of context that makes the recursive process of composition parallel that of so-called design methods and their approach to complexity. Both of them involve engaging with facts iteratively, recursively, and with an appreciation for the dynamism and contingent nature of reality. Writing poetry introduces one to the cognitive interactions that characterize design methods even if it does not involve the structured methods and principles necessary to translate insight into understanding and action. The parallel exists in part because both activities, poetry and design, are bespoken rather than deductively framed.

Context Begets Inspiration

The root of poetry’s necessity to the professional is that it demands inspiration, thereby bringing authenticity into one’s reflection. Those who are uncomfortable with inspiration force awkward verses. However, writers who engage with their sources of inspiration—be they driven by hope, fear, anger, or love—cannot help but produce revelatory work. Uninspired work borrows from experience, grafting familiar frames over unfamiliar phenomena with the predictably contrived results. Inspiration is cognitively identical to the process of elucidating motivations, interactions, etc., in capturing the operational environment. For military professionals, it is thus eminently useful in guarding against the ever present menace of unconscious contrivance as they plan and assess operations and campaigns. Otherwise competent leaders often fail to resist their biases because experience itself seems compelling in a pragmatic and rank-structured world. Many, if not most, leaders are aware that cognitive biases and groupthink can mislead and distract them, but they all too frequently fail to account for those traps and to properly bound their instincts.

Who we are, in all our complexity and contradictions, rarely meets the gaze of human eyes or even our own consciousness.

Dealing with cognitive liabilities requires a rich self-awareness, and poetry through reflection and enabled by patience can open the door to such understanding. Unmasking the substance of our cognition cannot be anything other than a revelation. Who we are, in all our complexity and contradictions, rarely meets the gaze of human eyes or even our own consciousness. For the earnest-minded and humble, poems can be the keys to professional nirvana and the ability to exercise metacognition.


Walt Whitman (Wikimedia)

One might reasonably doubt the proposition that every military professional should delve into the poet’s craft. For some, poetry might seem a remote province from the grist of troop leading and strategy, but skeptics should understand that the imperative is not for military professionals to write poems. Rather, it is for vested military leaders to contend with themselves and to thereby learn. In the sparring space, pugilists discover their fears and the intersection of physical and mental stamina in a way that is impossible by other means; it is in the fight that one sees the heart of a rival and of self. The path to cognitive revelation is no less narrow and singular. Nonetheless, the way is simple to find if one understands the demands of poetry and its rewards. Individuals who covet the office of leadership should not disdain poems but, rather, should instead take up Walt Whitman’s entreaty:

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Robert Mihara is a former Featured Contributor on The Bridge and a strategist in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds an M.A. in U.S. History from Texas A&M University.The views expressed in this essay are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the US Army, Department of Defense, or any other agency of the US government.

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Header Image: A soldier writing a letter home in 1940. (Geoff Robinson/Daily Mail)