Read Fiction and Be a Better Leader

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Joseph Badaracco, Harvard Business School professor.

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SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm talking today with Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco. One of his courses that he teaches at HBS revolves around leadership and literature. So today, we're going to talk with him, in the spirit of summer reading lists, about what lessons we can learn from fiction.

Joe, thanks so much for joining us today.

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Very glad to be here, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: So Joe, what I'd just like to get started with is why use works of fiction to teach leadership?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: My view of what makes literature so valuable in the classroom is that it helps students really get inside individuals who are making decisions. It helps them see things as these people in the stories actually see them. And that's because the inner life of the characters is imagined and described, in many cases, by brilliant writers whose sense of how people really think and how they really work have been tested by time over decades or even centuries.

We have students, as you know, from a wide variety of backgrounds. And many of them take this course because they've got their own sort of personal interests and concerns-- things they're really trying to think through. And what they often really learn is not sort of what the author put in there, but they learn what other students see and understand and are troubled by or like in these stories.

So it's a very complex form of learning, but it's very different from the old instructional model. In many ways, it's like the case method approach to learning.

SARAH GREEN: Well it's interesting that you mention the case method, actually, because I was just thinking as you were talking about that, it's like the case method, but the stories are made up.

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Yes.

SARAH GREEN: Are there any risks to that? Are there any potential pitfalls with using made up stories to teach these kinds of lessons?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: I think there are only if you make bad choices about the stories you put in front of students or others. So about halfway through the course, almost every year a couple students will come up and say, I'm really enjoying the course, but are we ever going to have a story where the main character doesn't die or end up despondent at the end of the story?

And what I've been telling them is that in past years, I've tried with some novels that were lighter or more upbeat. And then when I ask students to rate the material in the course at the end, it was always the serious, tragic books that came up at the very top. Those are the stories that really engage people.

And I think that when people are reading them-- and as I said before, when they're reading a story that's really stood the test of time, they see it as real. It may not be factually real, but emotionally and psychologically it's real. And I don't think there's any problem.

I think what you get is what I was pointing to before is a kind of intensified reality. And a reality that you see from a range of perspectives, including an inside perspective. And that's really valuable.

SARAH GREEN: Hmm. I was surprised somewhat to go back and look at your HBR article on this topic in which you talked about Conrad's The Secret Sharer. You talked about Antigone by Sophocles. Really as examples of literature in which people are fighting or arguing within themselves or with other people over different competing values.

Because when I look at the media landscape today and how business is covered, often you see business people portrayed as not having any values, unless maybe greed is considered a value. I'm just wondering, what kinds of conversations come up in your classes as people are talking about ethical decisions and how to deal with competing values as opposed to values versus no values?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Well, first of all, that's absolutely the right distinction. There's some books we read or some movies we watch and discuss where it is kind of good versus evil. But the questions that really engage people are the ones where you've got competing obligations, competing responsibilities.

You mentioned Antigone, and that's 2,500 years old. And basically there, you've got Creon, the king, who believes deeply in the stability of the state and the importance of peace after a long civil war. And he's at odds with Antigone who believes deeply in family and religion.

And what's interesting in that story is that the most intriguing character is actually the chorus, which you see going back and forth, back and forth, understanding both perspectives and trying to find some sensible way forward that acknowledges all of the competing values. And that's what we really try to replicate in the classroom.

Students, some will have a sense that this is more valuable. Some will say, this is what the person should do or should have done. And this kind of back and forth exercise of seeing things from a variety of different perspectives and taking each of those perspectives seriously is a really valuable exercise for getting these difficult, moral issues straight.

And it's an antidote to what you see in some Hollywood movies and the rest where you got the hero. It looks complicated to everybody else, but he or she sees the right answer and plunges ahead. And often plunges ahead in the wrong direction.

It's this back and forth, engaging the complexity of things, that doesn't guarantee you're going to make a good decision, but it raises the odds of making a good decision. And that's what you get out of really good stories. Especially in a really good discussion, the students really struggle with the fact that there are competing sound views. Part of them are pulled one way, and part of them are pulled another way.

And that means they're engaged in the ethical reality of the situation.

SARAH GREEN: And that is probably more like the kind of ethical decisions that they will have to face as leaders in the future.

JOSEPH BADARACCO: That's right. In a way, you could describe what fiction does particularly well is it introduces people to ethical complexities. And some of the complexities are around the ethical principles. Others are more emotional, psychological around things involving self-discipline, focus.

They really see the large, complex, sometimes messy sphere of things that are genuinely ethical. And you get in an organization and I think often, the higher you get in a well run organization, the more stuff you have to deal with is just gray. It's complex. And it sort of gets delegated upward, because it can't be put in a category or handled by a technique by somebody else.

And so these gray things land on people's desks, and they are practically complex, and they're ethically complex sometimes. And so this is a way in which these discussions of literature, I think, really do prepare students for the situations they've been in.

By the way, let me just add one thing. We've been talking about preparing students. But the average HBS student these days is 28 or 29. Some of them have had some significant real world experience. Either families or military veterans have been in some really tough situations, and they're very thoughtful people. So we're not simply preparing people. We're also drawing upon what they've learned from, in many cases, some pretty tough decisions they've had to make.

SARAH GREEN: One of things you mentioned that's related in your HBR article on this topic, you wrote that contemporary management literature is relentlessly upbeat and that fiction is actually more realist. And I'm just curious, as someone who produces a lot of contemporary management literature, what does it say about business writing that we have to turn to fiction for realism?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: I think first of all, a lot of people who turn to business literature want to find something that is helpful to them, sometimes short term, medium term. How do you think about problems? How do you make progress on the kind of problems they have?

And they want to read things that are going to describe something that works and that's worked before. And it's going to give them some confidence and some tools that they can use.

So I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with that. I think it's a sort of nature of a lot of basic management literature.

But what is troubling-- I'm sure a lot of the people listening to this know just what I mean-- when you find something, it takes a situation that's complex and says, well, gee, just do this and this. And this is something that you could kind of explain to an intelligent 12-year-old, and they'd get it. And you just have a sense that no, there's many more levels of complexity here that are being ignored.

And it is often these psychological, emotional levels of complexity. In an organization, you're just dealing with other people all the time. And it's very hard to capture the nuances, the subtleties, the histories, and all the rest of that in a nonfiction book. So that's why you turn to literature-- to get the depth, and the richness, and the realism.

SARAH GREEN: Hmm, are there particular books that, over and over again, you have really seen students get a lot out of?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Yes, there certainly are. I think the most surprising one is called Remains of the Day. I've taught that over 15 years. It was made into a movie a number of years ago. It's basically the story of a British butler and his life between roughly the 1920s and late 1930s in a great English home where some discussions took place among high-ranking government officials about the recovery from the first World War and trying to avoid the Second World War.

And he's a butler. And he's a very reserved butler, and it's told in the first person. And you really get a sense of what a sad, stiff character this guy is. So you would wonder why on God's earth would 29-year-old Harvard MBAs from all around the world engage in this book?

But it consistently comes out one of the highest ranking books. Part of it is because this butler has set a very high standard of professional excellence for himself. And he really wants to achieve it, and this is something that they really want to achieve.

And the butler finds himself frustrated, and surprised, and disappointed on many occasions as he recounts his life. And I think in the back of their minds, they're wondering, gee, I've got these high standards. Is something like that going to happen to me and will I respond better?

I'm not sure I really understand why this British butler so engages students. But that's a marvelous example.

SARAH GREEN: So I don't want to put you in the position of the Oprah of HBS, but is there a way that they can get started with either a couple of books that you think would be good or the kinds of books that they should be looking for?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: I think the kind of book they should be looking for is a book ideally that they and a couple of other people they know feel like they're interested in reading, either because they've read similar books in the past or they've read a book review or something like that. So unless it's just the trashiest dime-store romantic fiction, go with a book that engages you.

Secondly, I'd say sort of ask some classic HBS questions. In almost every book, there's somebody who takes initiative and who is a kind of leader. They may not be a heroic leader. It's often a version of quiet leadership, somebody working behind the scenes. And ask some good HBS questions. Did they get these decisions right? Did they think about them in the right way? Would you have handled them differently? Why did they do what they did? Trying to get inside not just the characters as characters, but characters as members of an organization and people trying to shape it.

Now the organization may be a family. It may be a community. It may be a tribe. Who knows? It may be a police force, if the character is a detective. But try to get inside them from what I'd call kind of a set of HBS questions.

Final quick little piece of advice I'd give, especially for the many really busy people who are listening, is think about listening to books. It's very easy to do on a smartphone or something like that. The books typically aren't read. They are performed. The pace of listening to something is much slower than the pace of reading, especially in a world where we all sort of have a bad habit of skimming.

So you slow things down. You hear them interpreted. You hear them often much more powerfully. And you can listen to them at sort of odd moments of time and really get into a story.

SARAH GREEN: I'm very glad you mentioned listening, because of course, we're big fans of people who listen to things on the go. The IdeaCast. If there is one book that you wish that leaders would read, that you think the world would be a better place if more leaders had read this book? Is there a book out there that fits that description?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Well, that's such a tough question. And I'm not really sure there is one. But among the several, I think it would almost certainly be one of the books that comes from the great enduring classics. So you would have something like Antigone. You might have Macbeth, which is about people going down the wrong paths. There's some of the great short stories, like Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer, which is about what it really means to take responsibility for something.

I think if you've got almost any list of great literature, of the 25 best books, I'd want to probably point to some there. But what works for a particular individual is very personal. And so I think that's why people need to read around and try some things.

SARAH GREEN: Yeah, I realized as I was asking that question that it's sort of an impossible question to answer. I Myself, just as an aside, I'm a huge Jane Austen fan. So I would probably have gone with Persuasion or something, since that's the book that's kind of about strength of mind and influencing other people. But I realized as I was asking it that it's kind of a tough one.

JOSEPH BADARACCO: Well, those are just sort of marvelous little universes that she creates. You sort of have all of human life in there.

SARAH GREEN: So Joe, any final words of advice for people who are just trying to fit a little bit of reading into their schedules?

JOSEPH BADARACCO: I'd say first, make the time, even if it's only 15 minutes a day, to try to read something that's serious, that's challenging, that speaks to you, that's been around for a while. And to read it slowly. Just make a start-- five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes a day.

Second thing, ideally try to find somebody else who will also read it and talk with you about it. Because as we were discussing earlier on, what really works in the classroom is the fact that you've got a group of people who engage in a story and discuss their reactions to it honestly.

So those, I'd say, are probably the two really big things. Find something. Make the time regularly, if not daily. And ideally, do it with someone else.

SARAH GREEN: I think that is very good advice. Thank you very much for chatting with us about this today, Joe.

JOSEPH BADARACCO: You're welcome, Sarah. I enjoyed it.

SARAH GREEN: That was a HBS professor Joseph Badaracco. For more, visit hbr.org.

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