Five Thoughts on Leaders Being Poets and Plumbers

James March, professor emeritus at Stanford, is known for his research and thinking on organizational design and behavior. March believes that every skilled leader is both a poet and a plumber. The poet work of leadership includes articulating direction and formalizing cultural values, crystalizing beliefs with words and stories. The plumbing work of leadership includes the creation of systems and building the discipline of execution. With the images of poets and plumbers, here are five thoughts on the implications for leaders:

1. Leaders will tend to be stronger in either poetry or plumbing. But they must be concerned that the people they lead receive both poetry (vision, values, etc.) and plumbing (execution, systems, etc.). Poetry helps create a culture people want to be part of. Plumbing helps people work efficiently and effectively.

2. Without poetry in leadership, teams can feel very stale and boring. To avoid the trap of mindless execution, leaders must remind people of the sacred why beneath all the action.

3. Without plumbing in leadership, execution and implementation will suffer. More than just giving an overarching direction, leaders must be concerned with how that direction is implemented.

4. The leadership poetry and plumbing should be deeply connected. If they are not connected, the visionary language does not impact the day-to-day work. If they are not connected, the mission and value statements are rendered useless and are divorced from reality.

5. Many visionary leaders are too disconnected from the plumbing in their organizations. In ministry contexts, too many church leaders are disconnected from how mission is implemented and executed. It is insufficient to declare “go make disciples” without helping the church see “here is how we are designed to make disciples.”

Likely in your leadership, you are stronger at poetry or plumbing. Both are essential and they must be connected or the catchy slogans and vision statements will have no bearing on all the activity.