The Engaging Leader Diary – Conversational Leadership with David Whyte


Last week my 300th show aired on Voice America and thus I want to share some of the lessons from some the interviews that have had an impact on me. Today I want to talk about David Whyte.

Over many years I had heard the name  David Whyte and how his work had impacted the many incredible leaders he works with. A connection once told me how he had attended one of David’s retreats and a helicopter landed in the grounds with one of his admirers. Steven Spielberg and his wife had joined them for two days.

As a poet, David has created a readership and listenership in three normally mutually exclusive areas: the literate world of readings that most poets inhabit, the psychological & theological worlds of philosophical enquiry and the world of vocation, work & organizational leadership.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him on the conversational nature of leadership. The reality that below the surface there is always more going on with people than we realize. To uncover that we need to be prepared to have not only conversations with others but also deep conversations with ourselves as leaders.

Here are some of my take outs from an amazing conversation that still weeks later have me reflecting regularly. A conversation that a just shifted my conscious awareness.

1. We must realize that what we demand of the future will not always happen. We may have expectations and plans but the reality may be somewhat different. Therefore we have to accept that there is a frontier between our expectations and reality. The art is to therefore not to be phased by disruption but rather to expect it. I see this in business planning where companies demand certain results which may or may not happen within their timescales due to factors often beyond control.

2. We must accept Vulnerability – We therefore live an Illusion where we somehow construct in our minds a life where we are not vulnerable. The truth though is that most humans are at war with reality about 50% of the time. Stuff just happens. We get ill, others get ill, we may experience redundancy, relationship issues, financial issues etc. Therefore a strive for balance will be difficult as factors our control will cause upheaval and from time we will be vulnerable. I do believe that most self growth often comes from times of overcoming vulnerability.

3. Everything we care about is in a natural cycle starting with growth, fullness and then disappearance. For example, in my life my father is really suffering with his health in older age, even our family dog is worrying us with cancer treatment at the moment. Unexpected situations we had not envisaged a year ago can refocus attention. Most humans are therefore at war with reality because only 50% of the time the things we care about are growing while some things are in decline.

4. What we care about will break our hearts. One scenario I had not considered is that our work will also from time to time follow this cycle. As something we care about it can leave us heartbroken when things go wrong. I remember the pain when splitting up with partners in a past company and the pain of redundancy. When you give a lot of yourself and become deeply connected to something a split is always hard. It may on reflection have been for the best when you can put some time between you and it.

5. We cannot construct a life where we will not be heartbroken from time to time. For example we care about our kids. From time to time they will also break our hearts. There is a saying that ‘kids when they are youngwill break your arms, when they are older they break you heart!’. Hearts get broken over people and things we care about, work, kids, health, loss or damage of treasured possessions.

6. The truth is we can’t plan every step from where we will always be able to see the path to where we are to where we are going. We see the path and then glimpse it again but never fully. All we can do is look at the horizon that is pulling you. Allow ourselves to be taken to it and not try to keep putting ourselves into a strategic future. At times the road drops away from you as if you are walking on thin air.  To have risked yourself for something inside you and far beyond you is what matters.

As David reminded me in such a beautiful way. ‘One day you realized that actually what you wanted had already happened. You were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the guilded rues of any end point’.

Some points made by David for leaders to consider:

1) What conversation (s) do I need to stop having now?
2) What has been inherited that is getting in the way?
3) Could there be a name or a label to people or things that I have given to them that is limiting potential in that relationship
4) Make a friend of the unknown and therefore don’t be disappointed by the unexpected. It may still be leading you to where you want to go.
5) Step into the ground of your own perspective by getting grounded with self knowledge about yourself.

Please note that this interview does have poorer than usual sound quality due to the phone line to David’s remote island home. However, it is an incredible interview and well worth the listen:

Chris Cooper is an engagement, leadership and team development specialist, coach, workshop facilitator and speaker based in the UK. Chris is also a highly experienced Talent Dynamics facilitator. He is host of the Business Elevation Show the most accessed business show on Voice America in 2017 and Co-Author of The Power To Get Things Done (Whether You Feel Like It Or Not). He is a fellow of the Professional Speaking Association and partner of Engagement Multiplier .
To contact Chris to see how he and his business can help you : [email protected]

To find our more about David Whyte:

  • In December, I had the amazing opportunity to speak to Fahri Ozcakil, the head of the whirling dervishes in Turkey.… 15 2020
  • Let's talk about business and love: A Turkish journey of discovery on my quest to learn from Rumi -… 14 2020
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John’s expertise in coaching, leadership and employee engagement is outstanding. I have worked closely with John since 2013 to support University of Leicester School of Business MBA candidates with their personal and professional development. This includes John using his expertise in shaping ideas, creating and executing projects briefs to transform leadership capabilities. John has used his wide ranging experience from the corporate sector, professional bodies, SMEs and HE to engage the audience. Feedback for John’s sessions has been very positive, highlighting that John’s use of current issues and his wide ranging professional experience brings the subject to life and enables his audience to apply the content to practice.

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