Slam Poetry, Authenticity and the Locus of Evaluation

NO idea where I am in the poem. But even if you’re lost, be lost with conviction!

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.)

You’re perfect as you are, and there’s room for improvement

High performance individuals often assume that to grow they must make huge leaps in ability. This sometimes happens. More often though, it’s the simple, measurable changes in perception and behaviour which have the greatest effect. In this story, JP confronts his assumption that growth for him means turning back the clock some 50 years, to when he could absorb and integrate new information as easily as a child. In the words of an old girlfriend of mine: assumption is the mother of all f***-ups.

JP leant forward with his elbows the table, lowered his head and clenched his fists into his silver hair. He had spent the day managing a international team of engineers at a hydroelectric plant – ‘testing breakers’ he’d said. He’d gone some way towards explaining the process, but he’d ground to a halt. His fists, the silver hair spiking between his fingers, looked frazzled. He glanced up at me.

‘You remember, Theo, I adopted my son from Ethiopia. I brought him back to France when he was 6. After a month in Paris he started school. 6 months later he could speak French as well as me.’ He yanked his fists out of his hair. ‘I am 60! I should speak better English!’

‘Look,’ I began. ‘We both know you have enough English to manage your team, and I understand you expect more of yourself. Let me ask you this: what would happen if you let go of the opinion that you were not learning fast enough?’

He looked up over my head. I could see the whites of his eyes.

‘If I had no opinion, my objectives would change.’

‘Ok.’ I let the reflection hang.

‘My objective would not be to explain a complex subject, or tell a long story.’ He paused. ‘But I have so much to say,’ he blurted.

‘That’s your ego’ I countered. ‘Let it go. Another objective.’

 ‘My objective would be to feel comfortable making simple sentences with the language I have.’

‘Let go of “simple”. That’s your opinion again.’ JP tilted back on his chair and puffed out his cheeks.

‘My objective would be to be comfortable making sentences with the language I have.’

‘And then?’

‘But then I’ll simply stay where I am. Why would I improve if I’m happy now?’

I see this again and again with leaders in businesses who are tying to grow. Jean Pierre was gripped by the assumption that he should be different to how he is now. He thought this because he was comparing himself to his son. The opinion he’d formed of his ability had carried him only so far. Now he was difficult to be around.

‘JP, if I may: your body is all frustration. You pull your hair. You clench your fists. You’re a stressful person to talk to!’ I looked at him. ‘I understand. If we are content with how we are, then it feels as if there is no reason to grow. Let me ask you this though: which attitude do you think is going t help you learn faster: judgment, or acceptance?’ It was a deliberately leading question.

‘Ok, acceptance Theo. But I’m only here speaking to you because I wasn’t happy with how things were going.’

‘I accept that. But what we are investigating now is how you can move forward sustainably. The way it will become sustainable is if you can accept where you are now, and be honest with yourself as to what communicating better actually means. At the moment it means “learning as fast as my 6-year-old”. To think that to improve you must learn like a 6-year-old suggests you already think you learn incredibly fast. That’s quite arrogant.’

Jean Pierre smiled. He took his glasses off and pinched his eyebrows together. Briefly inspecting the lenses, he slid his glasses back on with both hands.

‘So I must accept my limitations.’

‘How can you not accept them? They are a beautiful fact!’ Jean Pierre smiled thinly and rested his chin on his folded hands.

Often our opinion of who we think we are stops us accepting the fact of our limitations. That’s not to say our limitations are fixed – quite the opposite. But when we make unfair comparisons between ourselves and others, we lose sight of what it means to grow. Only with humility can we recognise the moments we do better.

Meet Sophie – a tale of leadership growth

Sophie is successful. She is already a Regional Director for a multinational consumer healthcare company. At last year’s annual conference in Paris, her region won the award for highest overall sales. She repeated that success this year too. She is so proud of her team, and of herself. Up on the stage, holding the trophy aloft she felt the glow of their achievement. “Is this what success feels like?” she asked herself. “I feel like we’re close!”

It was a great moment.

The thing is, Sophie has an insatiable appetite for renewal and regeneration. “What’s next? Where do I go from here? How can I be better?”

Sophie wants to grow. She knows the only way she can is by asking her stakeholders: “how?”  Based on their insights, she’ll be able to focus the next year on growing her leadership in a way that will benefit her, her team and her company the most. But she needs help. (We all need help!)

She finds Marshall Goldsmith Executive Coach. Engaging her stakeholders, she determines 2 areas for growth that year. She tells her stakeholders what she’s working on (otherwise how will they know what to look out for?). With her coach, she works month-by-month to create and implement action plans for her development. Her coach promises to support her and hold her accountable as she changes the perception of those around her who matter. She measures her growth, as perceived by her stakeholders, throughout the year.

On the journey Sophie’s eyes begin to open to Sophie-the-manager, and Sophie-the-leader. She wants to be great at both. She knows she can be.

Sophie-the-manager learns her job is not about her. It’s about the humans lives around her. She cares less about telling people what to do than asking them how she can help them be their best. After all, they are the experts in her behaviour.

Sophie-the-leader is desperate to share the story of how her team came to be up on that stage with the best sales figures of the year. She is even more keen to share the story of where she’s going next, and why everyone should follow her. Like all of us, she can feel the power of a human narrative. But how can she bring her story to life in the imaginations of her reports, her peers and her bosses?

Sophie learns that what she says will always come second to how she says it. It doesn’t matter that she often has to communicate in English, her second language. Whatever the language, Sophie is the same Sophie. As this dawns on her, her confidence grows; her creativity flourishes. This has some curious effects…

…her relationships with her stakeholders deepen. Her values at work and at home become aligned. Her colleagues and friends – even her family –  begin to comment on her presence, her tone of voice, her ability to listen. The bottom line begins to rise…

Sophie has her finger on her pulse. Her purpose has clarified. People can see it: she has the proof from her Leadership Growth Progress Reviews.

Of course, her team wins that sales trophy again the next year, and the next. But more than that, Sophie has become alive to the possibilities of the future. She understands that success for herself, her team and her company will be the natural byproduct of her authentic leadership.

All this is in reach for Sophie, for three reasons:

Firstly, she has the humility to listen to feedback and feedforward from the people around her who matter.

Secondly, she has the courage to change what is in her power to change.

Finally, she has the discipline to create monthly action plans, to implement them, and to measure her growth.

And let’s not forget she has help.