Print This Post Print This Post

I am of course paraphrasing Mario Cuomo’s ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose’.

Cuomo (1932-2015) was an American lawyer, a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a Governor of New York (1983-1995) and very found of phrases. He did ‘Poetry’ a lot. He once said: ‘I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week’. Mario Coumo did talk. Perhaps the Italian genes.

For all his visible and memorable ‘Poetry’, the Poetry of ‘Yes-We-Can’ and ‘Hope’, Obama, another lawyer, had to be coached and coerced into Poetry by his formidable team of political campaigners. Believe it or not, Obama was (is?) more comfortable with Prose. It’s the lawyer within. He would much prefer to give long and articulated explanations of the reason for a particular policy, than summaries and power-lines; driving his Communicators and Advisers nuts.

He was asked to be concise many times during the 2012 campaign, in particular, and he failed miserably at the beginning, for example in his first TV debate with Romey. He had to be reminded again and again (and to the point of people around being close to resigning in desperation) that, as leader, he needed to continue with the Poetry.

After the elections, he used to complain to David Axelrod, his key campaign architect saying: ‘I am not campaigning anymore!’, meaning, I can leave the Poetry and get into the Prose – his long Harvard lawyer explanations on social justice for example. He was told, as firmly as a friendship of many years could handle, that he was very wrong. ‘You are campaigning all the time’, Axelrod shouted at him. (David Axelrod, ‘Believer’, Penguin Press 2015)

It would be a mistake to equate Poetry with spin. ‘Poetry’ means here inspiration, purpose, drive, making sense, driving commitment, inviting to a place, a dream, a goal, elevating the logic to a higher purpose. Leadership Poetry can be (must be) sincere and honest, but has to elevate the narrative to a place of destiny; I don’t mind small d or big D.

The same honesty and sincerity applies to Prose. Prose  means the day to day managing, governing, making things happen, driving to results. After all, ‘manage’ has its roots in the Latin ‘manus’ (hands). Hands on things happening, that is.

The problem arises when a natural Prose-person holds a top leadership position, and when a top leader Poet is sent to manage the troupes. I know, I know, this is too black and white, too binary, particularly for those who always say ‘you-have-to-have both’ ( a Deus Ex Machina we all have handy when we want to kill a good debate). But it makes the point for me.

As leader, never stop the Poetry. Small p, big P, it does not matter. Even if you are also comfortable in the War and Peace side of writing.

Prose makes things happen. Poetry explains why.

Keep up with the Daily Thoughts

Twitter Email


  1. Scott Fahlman

    I particularly like this post. I hadn’t heard the Mario Cuomo quote before.

    I might add, “… and explain in stories”.

    Or, as I sometimes tell my students about their writing and presentations, even on technical subjects: “Examples beat abstractions, metaphors beat arguments, parables beat rules, demonstrations beat proofs, and pictures beat words.”

    You should open with the examples (etc.) — and now with poetry, if that’s in your nature — and then fill in with prose as needed for clarity and precision.

Would you like to comment?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To search my website, please use the form below.

  Daily Thoughts

May 19th, 2023

Value is an overused term in business and, as such, it’s becoming meaningless

Value, as usually used, means transactional monetary value. Usually it doesn’t mean intrinsic value, or value per se. For example, […]

May 4th, 2023

The importance of ‘critical thinking.’ Your own critical thinking is more effective at making your workplace better than any generic employee survey.

Build your own Employee Engagement argument for free. You can’t go wrong. Here are three baskets full of concepts: Basket […]

April 21st, 2023

´Busy-Ness’ Is A Trap

I went to a big conference where I was introduced by the chairman like this: “Welcome everybody. Lovely to have […]

April 14th, 2023

Training and culture change. The love affair that ends in tears.

It seems to be very hard for people to get away from the idea that if we just put individuals […]

April 11th, 2023

Teamocracies and Networkracies have different citizens: in-Habitants in team-work, riders in net-work

The old view of the organization is something close to the old concept of a medieval city, where citizenship was […]

April 5th, 2023

3 Ways To Get Approval From Your CEO Or Your Leadership Team

Way number 1: My team has developed these three options, A, B and C. Which one do you want us […]

March 29th, 2023

A Cheat Sheet To Create A Social Movement Tip = to shape organizational culture since both are the same.

Mobilizing people. This is another of the Holy Grails (how many have I said we have?) in management. Whether you […]

March 16th, 2023

Critical Thinking Self-Test: A 10 Point Health Check For Your Organization And Yourself. If any of these are a good picture of your organization, you need to put ‘critical thinking’ in the water supply.

Test yourself, and your organization. Do any of these apply? Doing lots, too fast without thinking. High adrenaline, not sure […]

March 9th, 2023

A culture of safety or a culture of training in safety?

Cultures are created by behaviours becoming the norm. Safety is at the core of many industries. Significant budgets are allocated […]

March 2nd, 2023

Empowerment is an output. If you can visualize it, you can craft it.

The real question is, what do you want to see happening so that you can say ‘people are empowered’? Employee […]

February 24th, 2023

A simple question will jumpstart your organization into change. It will also save you from months of pain spent reorganizing your people and teams.

The following line will short-cut months of (building) ‘alignment’, integration, reorganization, team building, coalition building, and any situation in which Peter, […]

February 20th, 2023

Lead Via Peer-To-Peer Networks – If you don’t lead via peer-to-peer networks, you’re only driving your car in first gear.

Peer-to-peer work, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is the […]

February 7th, 2023

Write a script, not a strategic plan

If you care about the journey and the place, you need a story. If you have a good, compelling one, […]

January 26th, 2023

3 self-sabotaging mechanisms in organizations

Organizations, like organisms, have embedded mechanisms of survival, of growth and also of self-sabotage. These are 3 self-sabotage systems to […]

January 10th, 2023

Who should be involved in culture change? All inclusive versus going where the energy is.

Many times, in my consulting work, I find myself facing a dilemma: Do I involve many people on the client’s […]

December 23rd, 2022

Tell what won’t change – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

In any change programme that any organization wants to start, they will start by thinking of the things that they […]

December 16th, 2022

Scale It – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

When creating effective change in any organization, there are 40 rules that, in my experience, are the key between success […]

December 5th, 2022

Assets & Strengths Base – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

For more than 30 years I have been involved in ‘change’ in organizations. Again and again, some fundamental principles, and often […]

November 25th, 2022

Campaign It… is 1 of my 40 rules of change

When you filter out the noise, when you try to extract the core, the fundamentals, those ‘universal rules’ of change […]

October 31st, 2022

Hybrid or not hybrid? That’s not the question…

Culture is the new workplace If you want to have a conversation about the future of work, the nature of […]

October 24th, 2022

‘Powered by Viral Change™’: A Social Transformation Platform for the organization of the 21st Century

When we started to work on Viral Change™, as a way to create large scale behavioural and cultural change, and […]

October 14th, 2022

Corporate tribes, intellectual ghettos and open window policies

We talk a lot about silos in organizations usually in the context of Business Units or divisions. But these are not […]

October 7th, 2022

Peer Networks are the strongest force of action inside the organization

Peer-to-peer works, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is […]

September 30th, 2022

Change that doesn’t deliver change-ability is a waste

The traditional model of change is the one I call ‘destination’ type, that is, how to go from A to […]

September 23rd, 2022

Company structures: aggregate and disaggregate

New organizations, and old ones in the business of transforming themselves, would be better off learning by heart these two […]

September 15th, 2022

3 Self-Sabotaging Mechanisms in Organizations

Organizations, like organisms, have embedded mechanisms of survival, of growth and also of self-sabotage. These are 3 self-sabotage systems to […]

September 2nd, 2022

The best organizational model is to have more than one under the same roof

Command and control management has fewer friends, and it’s quite terminally ill as well. The heirs are fighting for a piece […]

August 26th, 2022

Unprecedented Times? Sure. Let’s Move On Please.

Somewhere in the post-Covid peak, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to pay attention anymore to anything that starts with […]

August 19th, 2022

Engagement, Empowerment and Ownership Culture Meet at One Single Point. Obvious, Simple and Incredibly Forgotten

Employee engagement efforts, ownership values and empowerment behaviours must meet at one point. It’s simple, not terribly controversial, based upon […]

August 12th, 2022

Employee Engagement and the Productivity Magnet

For me, the most damaging use of the employee engagement framework is the widespread one that states that ‘engagement’ predicts […]