Literature's Lessons on Leadership

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Author Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. thinks that future business leaders can learn something from literature's classics. In his book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, he argues that certain literature "lets us watch leaders as they think, worry, hope, hesitate, commit, exult, regret, and reflect... These books draw us into leaders' worlds, put us in their shoes, and at times let us share their experiences."

With that in mind, Badaracco presents eight challenges that can test a leader's character, and eight works through which to examine these hurdles: Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, Allan Gurganus' story "Blessed Assurance," F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, Joseph Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer," Louis Auchincloss' I Come as a Thief, Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons and Sophocles' play Antigone.

Badaracco is a professor at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses in strategy and business ethics.

Excerpt: 'Questions of Character'

Chapter Four: Do I Really Care?

If leadership means making a difference in the world, serious literature suggests that this effort is often a long, hard slog.

The ancient Greeks understood that the work of leaders demands patience, courage, and tenacity, for months and years on end. Over centuries, they repeated and embellished a tale that eventually became the renowned epic poem, The Odyssey. It tells how Odysseus leads his men on a ten-year voyage from the plains of Troy back to their homes. During this quest, they find no shortcuts, their route is lined with diversions and seductions, and they have no guarantee of success or exemption from bad luck. Odysseus eventually brings his crew home to their families—but without his ardor, tenacity, and dedication, they would have perished.

How can leaders and aspiring leaders know if they actually care enough to make their dreams real? This question first appears in the early years of a career. Many young people work hard to keep their options open, but eventually they must decide which path in life they really care about and commit to it. Once they have done this, the question of care arises again and again—at least for men and women who aim to make a difference in the world.

The reason is simple: the world often resists real change and resists hard. As Machiavelli put it in The Prince, "Nothing is more dangerous or difficult than introducing a new order of things."1 The lives of great leaders confirm Machiavelli's observation. In photographs of Abraham Lincoln during his last years, we see toil and pain etched ever deeper into his face. Lincoln cared deeply, and the price he paid was high. But leaders working far from history's grand stage have the same burden. Their aims may be more modest, but so are their means, so they often have to fight very hard for what they care about.

To understand the crucial role of devotion in the work of leaders, look closely at The Love of the Last Tycoon, a novel about an extraordinarily successful businessman. Fitzgerald began writing this book in 1939, and he drew heavily on his experience as a Hollywood screenwriter and on the life of Irving Thalberg, who led MGM during the 1930s and made it Hollywood's most prestigious studio. Fitzgerald died of heart disease before finishing the novel, but not before creating Monroe Stahr, one of the most fascinating and complex business executives in American fiction.

When we meet Monroe Stahr, he is at the pinnacle of power and success. Stahr is a charismatic man, a brilliant manager, and compassionate human being. But his doctor has told him he has a serious heart problem and won't live much longer. Despite this warning, Stahr continues to work at a relentless pace. Why does he do this? Why doesn't he ease up and take care of himself? Or, in today's parlance, why doesn't Stahr stop and smell the roses?

Fitzgerald doesn't answer these questions explicitly. Instead, he lets us watch Stahr work, over several days, in a series of brilliantly imagined portraits of the daily life of a responsible senior executive. Fitzgerald also shows us what Stahr is feeling and thinking. We eventually see that Stahr's choice is conscious and perhaps even sound, and not the desperate act of a workaholic racing death.

Stahr is willing to pay a steep price to live and work on his terms. Others make different choices, but Stahr's story still raises hard questions for them, if they want to become leaders. Do they care intensely enough about their work? Is their commitment reflected in a powerful drive to get the small things right and help others do the same? Do they understand the price of really caring?

These questions are always there, just beneath the surface of managers' daily work, testing their resolve and character. Stahr lives the managerial life: every day brings another over-full schedule, with scores of messages needing answers, big and little projects requiring shoves forward, tough conversations, and crises of all sizes. Most days end with a pile of work undone. Most of these tasks require energy, care, attention to nuance, and some creativity—because people usually come through a manager's door with problems rather than solutions. And this stream of tasks continues for months and years.

This is why realistic portrayals of leaders' lives, like The Love of the Last Tycoon, show leadership as a long, hard slog and not a stirring adventure. But notice the second word in Fitzgerald's title. Stahr loves his work. He understands that his daily struggles and challenges are an inevitable and valuable part of the life he has chosen and the dreams that guide him.

Stahr makes his choice because he cares so deeply about his work, the people around him, and the studio he leads. We can argue, in the end, that he cares too much, but there is no question about his devotion to his work. This is why his story offers valuable insights for men and women trying to understand if they care enough to take on one of life's hard assignments and pursue it to the end.

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Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature

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Things Fall Apart
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The Secret Sharer and Other Stories
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Blessed Assurance

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