Nation & World

Truth in fiction

4 min read

Lessons for future leaders in literature, says HBS professor

For Joseph L. Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School (HBS), fiction provides a lesson for future business leaders. On his reading list for students is “Blessed Assurance,” a story by Allan Gurganus in which “a young guy is struggling to be a good son, a good sales rep. and person” while at the same time misleading poor people in insurance deals. The character spends much of the story wrestling with his conscience over what’s right.

There’s a lot more to leadership than streamlining and spreadsheet analyses, Badaracco says. Running an organization, in his view, is about understanding yourself and being open to the perspectives of others in a way that balances different business and ethical interests. Accordingly, Badaracco for years has been teaching a course that uses literature to help develop leadership skills. He has also made his case in a book, “Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.”

“Literature gives students a much more realistic view of what’s involved in leading” than many business books on leadership, said the professor. “Literature lets you see leaders and others from the inside. You share the sense of what they’re thinking and feeling. In real life, you’re usually at some distance and things are prepared, polished. With literature, you can see the whole messy collection of things that happen inside our heads.”

Reading in a deep way, and reflecting on the material with others in class, opens students to multiple perspectives on the toughest issues. Badaracco sees literature as a great remedy to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to leading. The multidimensional nature of great works can help leaders enhance self-understanding and open themselves to alternative perspectives and outside-the-box solutions, he says.

“Business schools don’t do enough to develop reflection,” says Badaracco, “but it’s really hard to do. Real reflection is hard because you need the time and training to do it.”

Badaracco’s literature and leadership classes are different from those in which the traditional case-study method applies, such as accounting and statistics.

“Students in my class react to characters in the book as if they’re real people. There’s a much deeper engagement in the actual material. It’s not about whether the debits and credits add up. They’re making comments about who they are and what they care about, and how they feel about the world that differs from their fellow students. It also reflects the student’s own character and judgment.”

Reading literature, and discussing complex issues with others, “teaches that people who are intelligent can see things differently,” says Badaracco, “and this happens in organizations, too; you need to be open and listen to these differences.” Leaders have to recognize their biases and blind spots.

Of course, lessons in literature will not alone produce a successful leader. There are best practices and ways of doing things that have been proven over time, and simply need to be learned, Badaracco notes. Literature becomes relevant when leaders face the need to balance competing interests and priorities are difficult to establish: “Literature helps identify the really complicated issues, and the stakes on all sides,” he says. Grappling with these issues through fiction is good practice for grappling with them in business.

A work such as Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” has much to teach the business student, Badaracco says.

“You have a portrayal of a very complex man, Sir Thomas More: a confidante to the king, a father. You see the same balancing, but in a more complex way.” The main character, says Badaracco, “is trying to preserve the safety of his family and his conscience. You see that balancing may be more important than ‘doing the right thing,’ the simplest definition of ethics. What do you do when the world is complicated and there are several ‘right’ things?”

The answer is multidimensional, as Badaracco’s students discover during their discussions: “Maybe the right thing with respect to one of your obligations is failing with regard to another of your obligations,” he says.

How has the class been received? “I have heard from some students who say it was the most valuable, memorable course they had,” Badaracco says. “That’s because it’s different from the other courses they take and because of the power of the literature itself.”

Click here for reading recommendations from Professor Badaracco.