Kelman: A novel idea: Read

Badaracco’s new book offers us an opportunity to learn from other people — and enjoy the journey

I doubt you will be surprised when I tell you that, as a professor, I read a lot. Even when I was a child, people commented that I always had my nose in a book. I did go through a period of about 25 years — from college graduation to about a decade ago, including the period when I was in government — when I essentially read no novels. Then my younger sister encouraged me to take up fiction again.

Steve Kelman So for the past 10 years, I’ve been reading a lot of novels. Although I can go for beach reading, I generally spend most of my reading time on so-called serious fiction. I find good fiction deepens my understanding of other places, times and human psychology. One of my favorites is Emile Zola’s “Nana,” which uses the portrayal of high-class prostitution as a metaphor for a sick society. Another is Henry James’ “The Bostonians,” an account of feminism in 1870s Boston.

I raise this topic because I recently learned that Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco Jr. teaches a course that uses literature to provide case study material for class discussions about leadership. Badaracco has written a book, “Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.”

Badaracco’s book is not an effort to extract one-minute-manager type lessons. Rather, it presents a dialogue with literary works that asks us to think about what it means to be a great leader.

One work Badaracco discusses is Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Creon, the king of Thebes, who is obsessed with re-creating order after a civil war led by  Antigone’s brother, refuses to allow Antigone to bury his brother according to proper rituals. What lesson can we draw from this? Focusing on a single objective “can render leaders oblivious to a wide range of factors that should influence them and can protect them from serious mistakes,” Badaracco wrote.

My other favorite discussion in Badaracco’s book is about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s uncompleted novel, “The Last Tycoon,” which deals with Hollywood film mogul Monroe Stahr.
Badaracco uses that novel to critique the fashionable view that organizations must use incentives to align managerial behavior with the organization’s interests.

Badaracco isn’t totally opposed to that idea. He wrote that we must ensure that leaders don’t violate ethical constraints, for example. But he also argued that such incentives aren’t what makes Fitzgerald’s tycoon, or other great leaders, tick. Instead, he said, great leaders are driven by a devotion to their work.
“With his talents, Stahr could have succeeded at other careers, but they weren’t his calling. Successful leaders typically have found a place where they can work with passion, care and devotion,” Badaracco wrote.

Above all, he wrote, great leaders are accountable to themselves as much as to others.That chapter from Badaracco’s book was particularly poignant to me. I think of the youngsters these days who go to work for companies that manage hedge funds, not because they love the work. They want the money.

In Badaracco’s view, such people are unlikely to become great leaders.
Badaracco’s book is rich and deserves to be read. And the broader idea — that we should read novels — should be a resolution for all of us.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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