Can Literature Teach Business Decisions? Joseph L. Badaracco of Harvard Business School Thinks So

Joseph L. Badaracco, professor of ethics at Harvard Business School, believes that business decisions and leadership take more than being able to analyze a spreadsheet, streamline business processes, or communicate effectively with stakeholders. Leadership, according to Badaracco, is about understanding yourself and being open to the perspectives of others.

For years Badaracco, the author of "Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature," has been teaching a Harvard Business School course that uses literature to help develop leadership skills.

Badaracco believes that the multidimensional nature of great literature can help middle market leaders enhance self-understanding and emotional intelligence and be more open to alternative perspectives. "Business schools don't do enough to develop reflection," Badaracco tells the NCMM, "but it's really hard to do. Real reflection is hard because you need the time and training to do it." Time constraints also apply to busy middle market leaders.

The NCMM talked with Badaracco and a few middle market business leaders about how they see the connections between literature and leadership in business decisions.

NCMM: How do the business leaders you've helped generally respond to using literature instead of business case studies or data-driven approaches?

Badaracco: There's a much deeper engagement in the actual material. They react to characters in the books as if they're real people. It's not about whether the debits and credits add up. These business leaders are making comments about who they are and what they care deeply about — and how they feel about the world, that differs from their fellow leaders reading the same material. It also reflects the leader's own character and judgment. Developing an approach to reflection is a key leadership skill.

NCMM: How then does reading literature help middle market leaders develop business skills?

Badaracco: Literature gives leaders a much more realistic view of what's involved in leading than many business books. 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.

Matt Gross, Boston-based entrepreneur and founder of Mobile First Software: Leading a business requires stepping back from the day-to-day grind and assessing the functioning of the whole organization. Great works of literature provide a similar and invaluable bird's-eye view. I've found that after reading a work of literature, my ability to empathize with others has increased. For example, reading Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, with its fictionalization of the character Heathcliff, helped me understand that in a hostile business interaction there's a human being on the other side, and any negative interactions are likely a result of that person's internal state of mind, not necessarily about what I'm doing or saying.

NCMM: In your view, what's the most important lesson business leaders can take away from reading literature?

Badaracco: Literature teaches that people who are intelligent can see things differently, and this happens in organizations too. You need to be open and listen to these differences. Literature helps identify the really complicated issues and the stakes on all sides. Grappling with these issues through fiction is good practice for grappling with them in business.

For example, in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, you have a portrayal of a very complex man, Sir Thomas More, a confidante to the king [Henry VIII], a father. You see him balancing all these issues, but in a more complex way. The main character 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? Maybe the right thing with respect to one of your obligations is failing with regard to [another obligation], but you need to make a decision.

Albert Chin, chief legal officer of San Francisco-based Calypso Technology, an enterprise software company: Effectively leading a business tends to be messy, filled with ups and downs and potential conflicts with team members, business partners, and customers. A successful business leader has to be introspective and self-aware enough to navigate the complex human issues that come with running a successful team or business. Reading literature provides a ringside seat into the innermost thoughts and fears of individuals and their struggles — insights not often shared among colleagues or, for that matter, the closest of friends and family.

Wallace Stegner's novel Angle of Repose is a great example of this. The protagonist really only begins to understand his life when he reconstructs the lives of his grandparents. In the process, he realizes how empathy and making accommodations to others are key ingredients to successful human interactions. Given the importance of relationships in business, this lesson is one that simply cannot be overstated, and it's one that I take to heart every day in all my business dealings.

Mike Henry Sr. (Tulsa, OK), VP operations at SageNet LLC and chief instigator at Lead Change Group: One of the characters in a business fable book said two things that have stuck with me. The first was that all unsolicited advice is received as criticism. While I've practiced the power of questions for a number of years, I only recently learned that whenever I do anything for the purpose of advising without prior consent, I risk offending or criticizing the person listening. So I practice asking for permission or waiting until I'm asked before providing advice.

The same character in the same book also said that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and we judge others by their results. I was struck by that statement. So I strive to judge myself by my results and give others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intentions. Simply being able to avoid judgment . . . makes it easier for people to want to work with me and let me help.

The Takeaway

As you can see from Professor Badaracco and practicing business leaders, if you want to sharpen some of your most important business leadership skills, such as the ability to analyze complex human relationships and gain insight (by using empathy) into the motivations of others, your best course of action may be delving into and reflecting upon a great work of literature. And while you may not exactly be Macbeth or King Lear, leading a middle market business can be a maddeningly messy and multidimensional role. Nothing lets you understand the triumphs and tragic mistakes of others like reading. Here's a recommended reading list from Professor Badaracco.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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