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Empathy in Business and Education through Poetry

“I always end my courses with a poem and students seem to like that...sometimes it’s a quote and it's just a nice way of connecting,” said Dr. Robert Thomas, Professor of Practice at the Scheller College of Business and Director of Leadership Education at the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact. 

Dr. Thomas had a fireside chat with us to discuss why he has always valued the idea of driving connection and empathy in educational settings via the use of quotes and poetry.  When all coursework and educational experiences quickly shifted to being online in spring 2020, Dr. Thomas reflected that as he continued sending out quotes and poems to students, they began expressing how much they looked forward to them. Poetry is a way to ground people through experiences of others in shared humanity, and now more than ever it has been crucial to find meaningful connections during these times of social separation. Dr. Thomas shares poems about leadership, overcoming and walking through hardship, and about ‘zooming’ out to learn from, and be inspired by one another. Mary Oliver and John ODonohue are some of his “go-to” poets with one poem in particular from John ODonohue about leadership that really captures what Dr. Thomas seeks to get across in his Social Entrepreneurship and Servant Leadership courses within Scheller. So beyond inspiration and connection, poetry is a way to reinforce the teachings of social impact business acumen with students. 

“And this is especially important at Georgia Tech, to remind our STEM-oriented student body to always be human-centered in their program, product, and business practice.” 

Dr. Thomas also referenced the incredible poetic works of Georgia Tech’s Karen Head and about how he would love to see the use of more poetry across campus - integrated into classes and supporting students and professors alike in their learning journeys. 

“One of my favorite poems has to do with going through challenges in life. As you move forward, you plant seeds, and those seeds become fruits and then blossom into something wonderful down the line and on the other side of hardship.” 

Sentiments like these are so important to be reminded of as we as a society continue to walk through challenging and unprecedented times. As Dr. Thomas continues to promote the use of poetry in his business courses, he points to how poetry can be inspirational for business. “There’s a business consultant/poet named David Whyte who goes into major corporations and he uses his poetry as his consulting tool around changing organizational culture and leadership”. Dr. Thomas also reflects on how some of his professional education students who run companies have used poetry to open internal meetings. Poetry has also been used as a form of meditation, reflection, and self-care for leaders which, Bob believes, is something that should be part of leadership education. 

“But this wasn’t necessarily about poetry alone. It was really about finding a way to connect the students with the humanity that we are all part of and that our actions affect[  - as part of their classroom experience. It’s about going beyond the technical course material: leadership and social impact have to do with understanding and valuing humanity. Poetry is a tool to shine a light on that.”

This wasn’t necessarily about the poetry.  It is about finding a way to connect students to our shared experiences.  In the end, leadership and social impact have to do with understanding and valuing humanity.  Poetry is a wonderful tool to shine a light on that.”

To conclude, here is an excerpt from the poem “ I will not Die an Unlived Life” by Donna Marlova, that Bob referenced:  

I will not die an unlived life,
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
To loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

Thank you for your work in bringing empathy into business education through poetry, Dr. Thomas. 

The Institute for Leadership and Social Impact is an interdisciplinary institute that promotes servant leadership and organizational practices that contribute to a more just, caring, and equitable world. Learn more about our work!

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Nicole Little
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