Leadership lessons from poet Mary Oliver

Natasha Bonnevalle
Article by: Natasha Bonnevalle
Leadership lessons from poet Mary Oliver

To live in this world


you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it


against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


[Excerpt from "In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive, 1983]


Last week, one of my favorite poets died. Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over 15 poetry and essay collections, devoted her life to spreading a deep appreciation of the beauty of nature. Her poems were filled with bears, geese, dogs and owls, the change of the seasons, the sun and the stars. People were hardly ever the subject of her writing, and yet her poems speak deeply to what it means to be a human being.


As someone interested in human development and, particularly, in the development of leaders, I would like to share three leadership lessons from Oliver’s work in honor of her death.

leadership lessons from poet Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over 15 poetry and essay collections. She died on January 17, 2019.


Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Pay attention

We live in a world tinkering between the real and the virtual. So much of our time is spent plugged in. We like and swipe in less than a heartbeat. Even if we manage to put away the distractions of our devices during our meetings, the transactional nature of our online behavior creeps into so many of our offline interactions. So much of what we do these days, we do in haste.

In her poems, Oliver quietly insists that we pay attention:

And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
a white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light
            of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

[Excerpt from “Swan” by Mary Oliver, from Swan, 2010]

In the midst of your busyness, do you allow yourself a moment to take in the blue morning sky, the snail on the hood of your car, the shine on your desk the cleaners left behind?

And, perhaps even more importantly, do you answer the hesitant smile of the receptionist on your way into the office, do you turn to your team member who talks of his challenges, can you get enough out of your own way to notice everything and everybody sharing this world with you?

Oliver writes: “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.” [Excerpt from “Our World” by Mary Oliver and Molly Malone Cook, 2007]

It is not merely making eye contact with someone or creating time in your agenda to meet. It is putting everything else on hold and bringing all your attention to the person you are with, creating the space in which connection and real dialogue can happen.

leadership lessons from poet Mary Oliver
In the midst of your busyness, do you allow yourself a moment to take in the blue morning sky or the snail on the hood of your car? #leadership #presence #payattention #leadershiplessons Click To Tweet

Embrace not knowing

As leaders, we are asked to make sense of the world. Our team members and co-workers look to us for answers and direction. We are taught that leaders should be assertive, always have a perspective, and make things simple.

Our current world, however, is not straightforward. It is complex and ambiguous. To admit that you don’t know, that you need a bit more time to figure things out, should not be a sign of weakness, but instead proof of a willingness to be vulnerable and human as a leader.

Oliver invites us to live without having all the answers:

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.

[Excerpt from “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver, from Evidence, 2009]

As leaders, we live up to the responsibility to create clarity for our employees, to analyze data and facts, to make good decisions, every day. But we should also allow ourselves to keep some room in our hearts for the unimaginable, for wild creativity, for the mystery of life.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and falling. And I do.

[Excerpt from “The Ponds” by Mary Oliver, from House of Light, 1992]

leadership lessons from poet Mary Oliver
Our current world is complex and ambiguous. To admit that you don’t know should not be a sign of weakness, but instead proof of a willingness to be vulnerable and human as a leader. #behuman #leadership #vulnerability Click To Tweet

Make your life mean something

In one of her poems, Oliver asks: “Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” [Excerpt from “Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches” by Mary Oliver, from West Wind, 1998]

In another, she writes:

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

[Excerpt from “Moments” by Mary Oliver, from Felicity, 2016]

As leaders, we face the same fears all humans face: the fear of isolation, of annihilation, of meaninglessness. It is understandable that we spend so much time these days exploring our purpose and articulating what we as leaders want to bring into this world. But I like to believe that, for Oliver, it is not enough to simply know your purpose. I like to believe that she is urging us to fully embrace life.

“That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” [Excerpt from “Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver, 2005]

Can you take yourself seriously enough to believe you are not just a visitor to this world? Can you make time to listen to yourself living? Leadership can be an all-consuming endeavor, but it should never get in the way of experiencing being deeply and utterly alive.

The poet and novelist James Dickey wrote: “Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” and I believe that reading poetry helps us explore the human aspect of the leader’s experience. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely an exciting developmental practice that can deepen our leadership learning.

To explore the human aspect of leadership potential, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.