Leadership Involves Poetry As Well As Plumbing

The headlines scream about leadership failure after failure around the globe every day -- at the world's biggest companies, in government agencies, non-profits, academia and at startups. So why does leadership fail?

Stanford University Professor Emeritus James G. March once said, "Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry." And I couldn't agree more, having experienced this throughout my career. Leaders fail when they cannot connect with people.

Leaders who can inspire others but are detached from the messy process of managing others fail. The devil is always in the details. This is a topic we discussed quite extensively in our new book Everything Connects.

Here are five ideas to improve the poetry and the plumbing in your leadership practices.


The most successful leaders are able to inspire and influence everyone: their executive team, employees, customers, clients, partners, investors, and many others. Inspiration cannot happen without clear communication. Others have to see that their leader is a person, too.

Success can quickly inflate egos to the point of the isolation of leadership and the alienation of those most critical to the organization's ongoing survival and ability to thrive. The best and brightest will be toppled if they can't inspire others. It takes a dynamic person with a positive, honest, forward-looking attitude to inspire and influence the people involved in building and growing enterprises and communities.


People need freedom to do their best work. People need to feel they're able to bring all of their effort into the task, which requires an open, autonomy-oriented culture. But this is not anarchy; with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility can be ensured with both quantitative and qualitative methods and springs from a thriving culture.

When we assemble lasting organizations, we're gathering people around a common cause. When the right people are gathered in the right way, the whole becomes greater -- perhaps much greater --than the sum of its parts. Gathering the right people at the right time in their lives, in the right combination of talents, is curation.

Categorize your organization's needs by what kinds of talent can fill them. Here are some examples:

  • Ideation roles: dream up, discover, invent, and spread ideas
  • Guiding roles: manage, navigate, oversee and develop ideas
  • Building roles: implement, execute, and finish turning ideas into processes
  • Improving roles: expand, reduce, and tinker with existing products and processes

As a leader we have to become curator for these talent pools.


Today companies and individuals alike are pushed to reinvent faster than ever. Innovation isn't an option anymore; it's a requirement. People who come together to share ideas, compare observations, and brainstorm solutions to complex problems power sustained innovation.

Successful leaders drive long-term value creation with constant reinvention: surveying the subtle and not so subtle arts of idea generation, decision-making, and creating continuous value.

Ideas arise from curiosity. Experiences are the fuel of creativity. Curiosity is the thirst for new experiences. That passion can be systematized.

We make better decisions after mapping them. When we make a decision, we tend to leave our understanding unexamined, whether as individuals or as organizations. Mapping them out lets us have a more granular understanding of how we work.

To create value over the long term, build platforms. The most sustainable way to create value is to continually invest in our capabilities both as individuals and as organizations. The most core of these capabilities is the understanding we have of ourselves and others.


To manage most business operations, leaders need to cultivate a culture of risk management that is vigilant in its pursuit and disciplined in its execution.

Strategic risk refers to the risks facing the firm due to poorly envisioned or executed business strategies. Among others, these risks include; business model risk -- refers to the robustness of the business model and how well it is being executed; competitive risk -- refers to the ability to sustain itself against competitive action and retaliation; integration risk -- refers to the risks of inadequate integration between business strategies, execution processes, and supporting process/technology infrastructures; misalignment risk -- refers to inadequate alignment between spending and business priorities; governance models risk -- refers to inadequate participation and involvement of executives on key decisions and lack of understanding of inter-dependencies.

Managing systemic risk requires establishing mature risk cultures that are characterized by a set of essential management processes and practices.


The focus on mindfulness in a leader sets a leader apart from traditional type-A thinking. Rushing from task to task detaches us from our creative potential and isolates us from the people that make our endeavors possible.

Living in the moment or being 'mindful' means that when we make a choice to do something, we focus solely on doing just that, rather than letting our mind wander into the future (or the past). It means single-tasking rather than switching between a multitude of tasks and focusing on none of them.

The best way to become more resilient is to develop oneself into a calm, compassionate and adaptable, mindful leader. Given today's global uncertainty, there has never been more need for mindful leaders.

Mindful leaders understand their reactions to stress and crises, and understand their impact on others. They are better at inspiring people to take on greater risk and responsibilities.

Our individual, interpersonal, and organizational working lives all interconnect. By examining these connections, we learn new ways to create, innovate, adapt, and lead that combines both poetry and plumbing.


Serial entrepreneur and author Faisal Hoque is the founder of SHADOKA and other companies. Shadoka's portfolio of companies (R&D driven products, services, and thought leadership) accelerates individual and organizational sustainable growth. Author of several books, his newest book is "Everything Connects -- How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability" (McGraw Hill, Spring 2014). Copyright (c) 2014 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.