Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Good Business, talks about the importance of “flow” (centeredness) in an effective businessman. He states, “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.”
How does one become a business leader and especially an entrepreneurial leader? (My short answer to this is live an authentic life and know who you are first.) For sure, there is not a simple answer to this, but the more complex answer is certainly not an MBA education. That will teach you to be an excellent corporate executive, a superb reader of P&Ls, a brilliant brand strategist, a fluid numbers runner, and a solver of classical business case study conundrums. What it does not teach is originality, creativity, passion, bone-deep ethics and meaning. And, to my way of thinking, since these constitute the base for great entrepreneurship, the traditional business schools cannot teach entrepreneurship.
However, if they want to teach real business leadership for the entrepreneur–and business schools increasingly claim to be able to teach this–there needs to be a new starting point for business pedagogy. In an increasingly anomic, bewilderingly fast-paced and complex business environment, that new starting point must be the meaning and ultimate reason for doing business in the first place. Why the hell be in business at all, except to accumulate money? Or is that enough?
I’ve recently read that Harvard Business School has been taking a stab at addressing this question through a course led by Dr. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. that uses great works of literature instead of traditional case studies to teach business leadership. Professor Badaracco“s course at HBS is called The Moral Leader. It focuses on great works of literature and moral philosophy. He uses books to explore “inescapable” elements of leadership: character, accountability, and pragmatism.
According to a recent article from HBS, Badaracco’s course eschews easy absolute answers and explores literature full of moral ambiguity and flawed humanity. He says, “I remind [students] of the Old Testament view of human beings; fundamentally, permanently, almost fatally flawed, unless they”re redeemed by something outside themselves.” To me this sounds a lot like the twinned concepts of sin and grace in the New Testament. So Badaracco’s base question to his students, as I understand it, is how do we create value out of the imperfect human vessels we are in a world without absolutes. If one is to have a practical academic starting point to being a leader, that seems like a pretty good one to me.
Here’s an abbreviated list of a few of Badaracco’s recommended great books for incipient businesspersons, with his descriptions.
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart–A village leader in Nigeria struggles against the arrival of the colonialists.
- Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin–A portrait of the life and work of the founder of a New England prep school, a story of entrepreneurship, idealism, shrewdness, and pragmatism.
- Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons-A play about Sir Thomas More and his long battle with King Henry VIII.
- Robert Brawer, Fictions of Business–Essays, by a former CEO and English professor, on classic works of fiction and their implications for managers and employees of business.
- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep–A classic American detective story, first published in 1939, which can be read as a story about the pursuit of professional excellence and the moral dilemmas arising from dedicated service to a client.
- Joseph Heller, Something Happened–A black comedy about success in corporate life and a fast-track executive adept at living on the surface of things.
- Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible–The story of the quiet and heroic leadership of a mother who takes her children to the Congo, following her missionary husband, and then leaves him and Africa and reassembles a life from the wreckage of these decisions.
- Arthur Miller, All My Sons-A play about a family unraveling the truth about a father’s decisions at work and their full consequences.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth–A study of ambition, the murkiness of values, and the powerful seduction of short cuts to success.
- George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara–A witty, complex, surprising play about an arms manufacturer and his idealistic daughter.
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace–One of the great books, worth reading and rereading for a multitude of reasons, among which are Tolstoy’s vivid and unforgettable portraits of men and women who change the world, on both the grand stage of life and in subtle, everyday ways.
Professor Badaracco’s course and courses like his may offer a more apt beginning to a true graduate education in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership (if such a thing can ever be had) than sophisticated instruction in how to write a business plan or when to seek venture capital. It goes to the why of business, not the the how.
Marcel Proust, in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, says, “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” Thank you, Marcel.