Creativity, leadership and good prose style

Published : Monday, May 03, 2010

On 14 May 2010, I’m speaking at the 23rd annual conference of CLANZ (Corporate Lawyers Association of New Zealand) in Rotorua.

I’m on a panel with Rachel Paris, a playwright, who is also a lawyer with leading NZ law firm, Belly Gully. We’ll be talking about the nature of creativity and how in-house counsel might practise it, as lawyers at work.

It occurs to me that a corporate lawyer serves their organisation best by standing in the same relation to it as the poet or artist stands to society: which is to say, lovingly outside it, exercising discipline and grace, questioning conventional wisdom on the basis of deeper human (ethical) principles. And one thing (or is it two?) they’ll need to get good at—again, like the poet—is clear thought and compelling, disciplined, memorable speech. All of which are leadership skills and qualities, of course. And as it happens, poets and other fine writers, who may know nothing about corporations and law, have a lot to teach a corporate counsel.

Creativity depends on independence of thought and a mastery of technique (in dance, in football, in colour theory, in syntax and so on). There could also be a bit o genius involved, but that’s a thing few of us can rely on. I want to explore the linked artistic practices of originality and discipline and suggest ways that corporate counsel might apply them at work, in particular in matters of thought and expression.

I’ll use some poems to show how poets perform something like magic and prophecy; how they offer deep-level guidance to the conduct of a decent life (including business life); and how they seem to access and channel a deeper wisdom they’re capable of on their own, by doing what they do—practising poetic meditation and expression. They can also teach an in-house counsel a lot about how to think well and write persuasively.

In the end, creativity is a larger part of leadership. The rest of it is communication. And—though poetry (like all art) must remain essentially amoral—all of leadership has something to do, like poetry, with the articulation and practise of deep-seated human values.

One thing you won’t be able to practise wisdom and humanity without is what poets know a lot about: writing well.

I say a fair bit about all this in the last chapter of my forthcoming book (with Geoff Whyte), The Little Black Book of Business Writing. So I’ll be drawing a bit on that.