Literature and business leadership
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - November 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Does literature have any value to management practitioners and business leaders? This is an interesting question during the week when the annual National Book Awards are announced to the public.

It would be surprising to most management practitioners to learn that two leading management gurus  – Warren Bennis and James O’Toole – argue that management students should take a course in literature. These two gurus have argued that business schools have lost their way because of the scientific model that dominates business research and teaching. Business academics are promoted based on the mathematical rigor rather than on relevance. What students get in class are highly trained academics steeped in mathematics who are teaching formalized management tools. 

These tools work well enough if you’re studying techniques for financial leadership and organizational behaviour. Bennis and O’Toole argue that students can learn more about these subjects if they took a course in literature. Fiction can be instructive about leadership and organizational leadership as a business book.

According to the Harvard Business Review [HBR]: “ ...Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr....has been offering just that kind of course to the school’s MBA students...Badaracco uses literature to provide his students with well-rounded, complex pictures of leaders in all walks of life – leaders whose challenges, particularly psychological and emotional ones – parallel to those of senior executives. In his classes, Badaracco uses texts such as Arthur Miller’s  Death of a Salesman, Sophocles’s Antigone, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, and Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar.” He also said MBA students perhaps need a little less in the way of quantitative tools and a little more in the way of good judgment and self-knowledge.

In an interview Badaracco said: “Of course literature is more subjective and open-ended than the typical case studies we do at Harvard which are fact based, highly researched and focused on particular issues. But it actually provides us with some of the most powerful and engaging case studies ever written. Serious fiction that  has survived the test of time raises more questions than answers. Think of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You could learn as much about leadership from that play as you would from reading any business book or academic journal. Its lessons are no less valuable and probably just as pragmatic.”  The book Julius Caesar is still one of the best handbooks on strategy and strategy execution which are the two main components of strategic management.

Another management writer, Abraham Zaleznik, believes that managers and leaders are different.  He said that “...while everyone can become a strategist, few can become and sustain the position of creator. Vision, the hallmark of leadership, is less a derivative force of  spreadsheets and more a product of the mind called imagination. And vision is needed at least as much as strategy to succeed. Business leaders bring to bear a variety of imaginations in the growth of corporations. These imaginations – the marketing imagination, the manufacturing imaginations and others – operate in perpetual capacities we recognize as talent.”

Zaleznik then discussed the role of business schools: “It seems to me that business leaders have more in common with artists, scientists and other creative thinkers than they do with managers. For business schools to exploit this commonality of dispositions and interests, the curriculum should worry less about the logics of strategy and imposing the constraints of computer exercises and more about thought experiments in the play of creativity and imagination.  If they are successful, they would then do a better job of preparing exceptional men and women for positions of leadership.”

Anthony Zalznik and John Kotter, author of the best selling book Leading Change belong to the school of management gurus who distinguish between management and leadership. They also both stress the critical value of “Visions” for leaders.

In today’s environment of rapid change, there should be more comparisons between the lessons of management theories and literature. 

Fifty years ago, James March published the book Behavioral Theory of the Firm which has become the seminal work of defining the decision making process in organizations. During his teaching days, March was well known for bringing classics like Othello, Saint Joan, and War and Peace into his organizational leadership classroom. He said: “I am an educator. By education, I do not necessarily mean formal schooling. The reading of literary classics, like the appreciation of art, science and music, is part of being an educated person; and the world is made better when such knowledge is embedded in leaders.”

The 19th century poet John Shelley once said that “poets are the ...unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” Today, a large part of that honor seems to belong to gurus of management and business leadership. Names such as Drucker, Peter, Porter and Collins may not have the same ring as the poets Wordsworth or Keats. It is the management gurus who are reshaping institutions, refashioning language and reorganizing people’s lives. Whenever these gurus converge with self-help advocates like Covey and Maxwell,  they are ordering people’s minds. Teaching them how to think about everything from organizing their desk to determining how to assess whether one is happy or not. Then we have a new group of  gurus, like Harari and Diamond,  about the future and the forthcoming revolutions. 

Why teach literature? Because they are fantastic case studies derived from lessons of everyday life and the “invisible” forces that will shape the future.

Creative writing classes

for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on December 7 with Gail Villanueva & December 14  with Rin Chupeco (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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