Last week I got myself unwittingly invited to perform at the largest Slam Poetry night in Cologne. If you’re not sure what a Slam is, think of a rap battle. It’s kind of competitive poetry reading. The usual format is 2 poets go up on stage, one reads their poem, and then the next, and the crowd applauds afterwards. The poet who gets the loudest applause/screams/whoops, goes through to the next round.
It’s been a while since I last performed. Having moved to Germany in February this year, it often feels like the months have ground by in a clunking of bureaucratic cogs. Last week though, things obviously came to a head, as I found myself reaching out to Reim-in-Flammen, the slam organisation here in Cologne. ‘Will you take an Englishman? I’d love to read!’
I think my soul was effectively saying, “I cannot contain my poems alone – they need to be shared – and sure, perhaps I need to be seen as someone other than ‘one-bewildered-by-German-health-insurance’”.
“Yes!” they said. “Come along tomorrow. We’ll pay you; give you Pizza, whiskey and beer (I was on Chamomile tea), and the crowd is 300-350”.
How could I refuse?
The reason I’m writing this today is because the experience of performing after such a long time (years) brought to light, literally, a facet of being ‘on stage’ which I think relates directly to leadership.
Standing up there in front of 300 people, you’re faced with a choice. Either you perform, or you run. If you have the necessary skill, and you know what you’re talking about, you can take possession of the space, yourself and your words. If you lack the skill, you crumble.
There’s an apparent paradox here. In the utter commitment you have to make to be present in that moment, to look into the blazing stage-lights while your voice bellows out through the PA system, it’s possible to find an extraordinary sense of freedom.
Something takes over. The nerves subside. A calm comes over you. Time slows down just a fraction enough for you to realise what it is that you want to give your audience.
No ego. No self-indulgence. A crowd will intuitively spot this right away.
It’s the vulnerability contained within the complete self-hood we feel when we take a stand and say to the world ‘here I am. See me as I am. And through my words, hear how I have seen the world’.
Even if your vision is as weird as a retired demi-god ushering the dead into a cinema (yes, that was my poem)… if, through your voice and your body, you own that vision, people will believe what you have seen.
To me, this experience reveals something fundamental about leadership. As leaders, we are often called on to take the metaphorical microphone (frequently an actual mic!), to step into a light so blindingly fierce we have to work hard to keep in mind the people we’re talking to, and to reveal our vision.
It’s a vulnerable, lonely place in which we have to commit. We cannot run if we want to be true to ourselves.
It’s about courage and commitment in the company of those who’ve opened their hearts and minds to hear you speak. And if they can’t – or won’t – hear us, then at least we know we have shown up as ourselves. Take it or leave it.
For me last week, this meant a total re-validation of who I am as an artist. I didn’t join the Slam to win (though God knows I would have loved the prize – a bottle of Bourbon. I’m better off without it.).
I went to share my work, to face the fear, and to find fellow artists here in Cologne. As a result I shifted what is referred to in psychoanalysis as my ‘Locus of Evaluation’ from the external to the internal.
Sure I received some applause, even a few whoops, and that was lovely. But we can’t rely on this kind of external locus of evaluation to sustain our sense of self worth. What happens when someone turns to us and says “actually, I thought you/your poem/your decision was terrible”? Our ego rears its head in either anger or despair!
No, last week I came away with a sense of having shown up for myself. I trusted my own instincts and stepped onto the stage in spite of whatever fears of disapproval my ego had. I was true to myself, and my unique vision, which, if one can act in such a way, is incontrovertible and impossible to judge.
It’s incredibly difficult. If we can pull it off though, our trust in ourselves becomes something others can trust in too. It’s a key part of authentic leadership. And in a time when everywhere we turn, duplicitous individuals are blustering their way to power, it’s a quality we need more than ever.
So, take the stage and make the whole world’s eyes shine.
(On a final note, Chamomile tea. It works! And I don’t even like it that much. I also suggest performing on an empty stomach, but perhaps that’s just me.)