Poetry for leaders

I use a lot of poetry in my work with leaders and leadership teams. This page is a resource for poems that I have worked with and shared and am frequently asked for: Favourite poets include William Stafford, Mary Oliver, RS Thomas, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Muir, WB Yeats, Norman McCaig

 “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it however tragic it may be all that matters is the eternal movement behind it – the great undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation and ignorance – however unlofty the intention of the poem…”

 – Dylan Thomas

A Poem on Hope

It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, 
for hope must not depend on feeling good 
and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. 
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality 
of the future, which surely will surprise us, 
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction 
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering. 
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? 
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.

Because we have not made our lives to fit 
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded, 
the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope 
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge 
of what it is that no other place is, and by 
your caring for it, as you care for no other place, this 
knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. 
It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask 
for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land
and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong 
to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. 
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. 
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last 
are no better than their people while their people 
continue in them. When the people make 
dark the light within them, the world darkens.

–Wendell Berry

The Way It Is

William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

 The Revolution


There is nothing but water in the holy pools,
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood and ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.

What Kabir talks about
is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something, it is not true

Now we will count to twelve by Pablo Neruda

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

I thought my fireplace dead

I stirred the ashes and burnt my fingers

Antonio Macahado


A Doodle at the Edge

William Ayott

Another meeting, another agenda, another

list of buzz-words, initials and initiatives:

PSU is entering Phase Three

while the CDR wants G2 to go to Level Five.

If we go the full nine yards on this one:

if we get pro-active, get out of the box, get

our teams together and on the same hymn-sheet;

if we hit the ground running, if we downsize HR.

if we get the money on board, and our asses into gear,

then we can change something, make a difference,

change what the other guys changed last week.


Meanwhile the god has left the garden,

the muse lies minimised in the corner of our screens.

Not dead, not buried, but ignored and unseen,

like a doodle at the edge of an action plan.

Me? I say make a sacrifice to the doodle;

pick some flowers, speak a poem, feed the tiny muse.

Draw, paint, sing or dance, and you’ll bring the gods

back into the board-room; the laughing, smiling,

weeping gods of the night-time and the wild.

You Guys…


William Ayott

This is your time

For frosty mornings in towns you will never know,

For resentful receptionists and chirpy secretaries,

For flipcharts and outcomes, for plans and reports,

For too much coffee and too many words.

This is your time.

This is your time

For dressing in the dark and cars to the airport.

For planes and trains and railway stations;

For loneliness, for grief, for embracing doubt,

For keeping hard secrets in the face of love.

This is your time.

This is your time

For being what your people need you to be,

For managing fear while showing calm,

For being their mother, for being their father,

For holding the line, or the hope, or the dream.

This is your time.

This is your time

For sudden sunlight breaking through the overcast,

For sweet green spaces in concrete canyons;

For the care of strangers, for anonymous gifts,

For learning to receive little acts of kindness.

This is your time.

This is your time.

For standing to be counted, for being yourself,

For becoming the sum and total of your life,

For finding courage, for finding your voice,

For leading, because you are needed now.

This is your time.

Healer by George mackay Brown

Gift of wholeness, blossoming, the dance

Of air, stone, rain.

I think of Eck, his blundering

With pen and scroll-such blots-in the library.

No, he could not wash a floor

But the bucket was upset.

The voice of Eck a crow at matins and Vespers.

Weed the herb garden, Eck. Weeds only

Infested the plot

We must send Eck back soon

To his father and the fishing boat at Catterline


In the diversity of gifts, for Eck

Nothing, a stone on his palm.

At Foresters Hill, our infirmary there

Eck found rare roots in the burn

We hadn’t known before.

Virtue flowed from Eck’s fingers

Into abcess and lesion

The leper’s cry well have Eck for bandaging brothers’.

So we may see dear people

Blessings may break from stone, who knows how

Gray’s Pier, a poem by George Mackay Brown

I lay on Gray’s pier, a boy

And I caught a score of sillocks one morning

I laboured there, all one summer

And we built the Swan

A June day I brought to my door

Jessie-Ann, she in white

I sang the Barleycorn ballad

Between a Hogmanay star and New year snow

The Swan haddock-heavy form the west –

Women, cats, gulls!

I saw from the sea window

The March fires on Orphir

I followed, me in black

Jessie-Ann to the kirkyard

I smoke my pipe on Gray’s pier now

And listen to the Atlantic

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