Literature's Lessons on Leadership Author Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. thinks future business leaders can learn something from literary classics. His book Questions of Character offers lessons from eight major works.
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Literature's Lessons on Leadership

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Literature's Lessons on Leadership

Literature's Lessons on Leadership

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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What makes a good business leader? Many business schools would suggest a grasp of economics, corporate finance, business analysis and entrepreneurship. Joseph Badaracco would also suggest a strong command of literature. For the past ten years at the Harvard Business School, Mr. Badaracco has taught some of the most intangible lessons of good business leadership through novels, both classic and less well-known, plays, and short stories. His reading list covers the power of dreams, vision, moral codes, role models and reflection in business. Joseph Badaracco has compiled a new reading list for a book called Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature, and he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Mr. Badaracco, thanks so much for being with us.

Professor JOSEPH L. BADARACCO JR. (Author): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And what qualities are you hoping that literature can instill that some other more conventional course aspects might not?

Prof. BADARACCO: Well, I think that the basic thing literature does is give the students some very compelling raw material to think about their own lives, their goals, how they work with other people. In some cases students have already read some of the books that we use in class. That doesn't really seem to make any difference. I think that people view a book, a story, differently when they read it in high school or college. And then they look at it again when they're in their late '20s and have another substantial chunk of life experience behind them. They read the stories and think about the relationship to their lives in quite different ways.

SIMON: Give us a couple of for instances of books. Some, as you go through the book that you suggest, obviously Death of a Salesman would -- I don't want to refer to anything as obvious. But that would be on almost anybody's list.

Prof. BADARACCO: That's right. It's one of the most powerful works that I use. The big question that Arthur Miller puts in front of everyone who reads the play or sees it, is what's the difference between a really good dream and a bad one that's destabilizing and corrupting?

SIMON: I can foresee a Harvard Business School major reading or seeing a production of Death and a Salesman and saying, Well, that just convinces me I've got to be the head of the company, not a salesman.

Prof. BADARACCO: Well, even if you're the head of the company, you work for the board of directors. And even if you're on the board of directors, you've got to please the shareholders. There really is no refuge from the pressures and uncertainties.

SIMON: You teach Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, to raise the question of a personal moral code for a business executive.

Prof. BADARACCO: That's correct. This is a story of a very successful African tribesman. He moves from poverty and obscurity to wealth and prominence in his community. He does so by following a code that was the code of his community and his personal code as he was growing up. But then what we see for most of the novel is the unfortunate story of a leader who could not see, adapt to and respond to profound changes taking place around him. And you're left with the question of how can somebody start out life with such promise, and with a sound moral code...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BADARACCO: ...attain a position of leadership and then end up a failure?

SIMON: You've been teaching this course how long, Professor?

Prof. BADARACCO: About 10 years.

SIMON: Any indication it's working?

Prof. BADARACCO: What is interesting is that about twice a year, maybe three times a year, I'll get an email from somebody who took the course a while ago who is continuing to read books or wants to ask me a question that's come up at work or in their life that relates back to a particular story. These books engage people, trouble people, and that's why they remember the story. One student said, You know, I've been thinking about this and I think my father really was Willy Loman.

If Willy were utterly an alien character, if he was easy to dismiss as a freak, the whole exercise of discussing these stories wouldn't work very well. He'd be an odd specimen on a dish and after the class people would forget him.

SIMON: Professor, thank you very much for being with us.

Prof. BADARACCO: You're welcome. I was glad to be here.

SIMON: Joseph Badarracco was the John Shad professor of Business Ethics at the Harvard Business School, speaking with us from Boston.

(Soundbite of "Death of a Salesman")

Mr. LEE J. COBB (Actor): (As Willy Loman) Howard, are you firing me?

Unidentified Man: I think you need a good, long rest, Willy.

Mr. COBB: (As Willy Loman) Howard, I...

Unidentified Man: And when you feel better, come back and we'll see if we can work something out.

Mr. COBB: (As Willy Loman) But I got to earn money, Howard. I'm in no position now...

Unidentified Man: Where are your son? Why don't your sons give you a hand?

Mr. COBB: (As Willy Loman) They're working on a very big deal.

Unidentified Man: Oh, this is no time for false pride, Willy. You go to your sons and you tell them that you're tired.

SIMON: Lee J. Cobb as the original Willy Loman. For the rest of Professor Badaracco's reading list, plus some of the dilemmas he believes they illuminate, you can come to our website,

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