As a small business owner you are not only responsible for growing your business, but also for leading your team. Leadership comes naturally for many entrepreneurs, but for others it is a struggle. And, even those natural leaders know that constant experimentation, learning, and reflection is essential to ongoing personal and professional growth. Many people turn to business books, biographies and autobiographies of successful business leaders, and other scholarly works for help with developing their own leadership skills. But according to Harvard Business Ethics Professor Joseph L. Badaracco, examining great works of literature can spur reflections on character, leadership, decision making, and self-understanding that are far more valuable than those spurred by reading standard business books.
In his book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, Badaracco writes:
“Serious fiction gives us a unique, inside view of leadership. In real life, most people see the leaders of their organizations only occasionally and get only fleeting glimpses of what these leaders are thinking and feeling. Even interviews with executives have their limits. Executives say only so much, even when they want to be candid; sensitivities have to be observed, memory fades and sometimes distorts, and successes crowd out failures.
In contrast, serious literature offers a view from the inside. It opens doors to a world rarely seen. It lets us watch leaders as they think, worry, hope, hesitate, commit, exult, regret and reflect. We see their characters tested, reshaped, strengthened, or weakened. These books draw us into leaders’ worlds, put us in their shoes, and at times let us share their experiences.
A recent Harvard Gazette article, Truth in Fiction, discusses Badaracco’s MBA course designed to teach students leadership skills through literature. His approach is to get the students to treat the literary works as case studies, a learning technique with which they are familiar and comfortable. Class discussions revolve around reflecting on the decisions made by the characters, including how the characters balance multiple competing moral imperatives.
For example, he uses Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to discuss how one’s internal moral compass is employed in decision making; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon to discuss how patience, tenacity and courage relate to leadership; Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons to discuss business pragmatism; and Sophocles’ Antigone to discuss adequate reflection of high-stakes decisions.
The complex characters from great literature, Badaracco suggests, are far more instructive than popular fiction about business leaders which he find to be largely superficial with a tendency to portray business executives as, ‘one-dimensional people, dominated or ruined by the pursuit of wealth and power.’ For more leadership-building reading suggestions see the Harvard Business School article, Why Leaders Need Great Books.
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