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How would Tolstoy recount the history of your leadership?
Stanford Business School professor James G March teaches leadership through War and Peace
War and Peace the Book
When I read War and Peace for the first time between my junior and senior years in college I was riveted. People would talk about it being the longest book ever written. Turns out it’s both close to the truth or it depends, assuming ChatGPT isn’t making things up. In spite of the length I was riveted by how complex and sprawling the narrative was. How many places the reader traveled, how many inside scoops the reader got in salons and hunting lodges.
When it came time for me to write a big final essay culminating my 4 years of study I decided to write on War and Peace and so I read it 2 more times (I think? as well as Tolstoy’s Confession and Anna Karenina). Published between 1865 and 1869, it is considered one of the greatest works of world literature and a pinnacle of realist fiction. Tolstoy drew inspiration from his own experiences as a soldier and his extensive research into the Napoleonic era.
The novel is set against the backdrop of the early 19th century and the tumultuous events of the Napoleonic Wars. It follows the lives of several interconnected characters, primarily from the Russian aristocracy, as they navigate the challenges of war, love, and personal growth.
War and Peace explores themes such as the nature of power, the futility of war, the significance of historical events, and the complexities of human relationships. Tolstoy delves deep into the psychological motivations and moral dilemmas faced by his characters, presenting a nuanced portrayal of their inner struggles.
War and Peace and Me
Why did I go off on such a Tolstoyan deep dive my senior year of college? It’s a long time ago by now. One of the biggest lures was one of the main characters, Pierre’s, struggles with his own existence. I felt like I was on a similar psychological meaning-of-life journey as he. Then when I read about Tolstoy himself in his “Confession” I learned that the author himself was on a similar journey, asking the same questions as both me and this character Pierre. The books and the essay provided me time to dive into these questions that were close to my heart and that this illustrious author also seemed to have had.
What is the meaning of life? What does give life meaning? How are we all connected? Why do I feel this way? What is happening all around me? This thing called history? These were fun big questions that were springing up in me and it was fun to work through them with such a famous friend. I also hoped I’d get some secret inside scoop, a little head start on answering them if I really imbibed Tolstoy’s writings.
The Book and Leadership
Tolstoy has some real strong dissenting opinions about “great men” and the nature of history. Even the nature of how humanity unfolds and how humans relate to each other in general. The “great man” theory of history that was prevalent at the time of his writing and very much sets the backdrop of the project of the book runs something like, special individuals cause major changes in human events. They originate ideas or plans and go off and impose their will on the world, changing the world and making history as a result.
In response to this theory of history, Tolstoy says, over ~1500 pages, “Nope.” No they don’t. How things happen is the culmination of a bajillion happenstance events. No single great person. And boy does he paint a vivid picture to get his “nope” across, from chaotic battlefield scenes to rudderless battle planning meetings to a seemingly absent but all-wise general that he exults, it’s hard not to “get the picture”.
Think about Professor March teaching this at Stanford. You head off to your fancy MBA to learn the art of business and leadership. You show up in your big fancy leadership class and your all-knowing professor slings down the billion-page copy of War and Peace. You go off somewhere nice on campus and read about the ambiguity and irrelevance of individual humans and power and leadership. What a twist. What is this guy trying to say to his students?
“Profound Truths and Unresolvable Dilemmas”
I contend he’s not saying you don’t matter, doubling down on the irrelevance theme. I contend he’s also not saying in a big, long-reading-assignment-shrug, it’s all ambiguous, who knows if your efforts matter. I contend he’s pointing toward the in-between. The nuance. The grey. He’s not offering students the right answer, you matter or you don’t. History is a matter of “great men/women” doing things and we’re all pawns in their hands. Or it’s all an eternally unfolding accident.
I contend he’s pointing at an opportunity to reflect and acknowledge when you don’t know something. Acknowledge when it is helpful to see yourself as powerful and able and responsible to affect change and when it is unhelpful. Acknowledge when it might be more true if not completely true that you have power to do great things and the ability to see when maybe your pride is spinning a tale that says you alone accomplished, say, some grand acquisition of a new business. I assume he’s pointing to and finding great wisdom in the in-between “great person” theory and Tolstoyan irrelevance and ambiguity.
March and Weil’s chapter on War and Peace and the themes relating to leadership and the class ends with conversation starters. In my undergrad I learned to call these “opening questions.” I’ll share some of them straight from the book with mine in italics.
Leaders are less important to the course of history than the are to our acceptance of it. They are inventions, but essential ones.
Near the end of the account of the engagement at Shöngraben, Tolstoy reports Prince Andrei’s feelings: “He felt distressed and sad. It was all so strange, so unlike what he had expected.” — What distressed Andrei? Why was he sad, rather than angry? What are we to conclude about history from Tolstoy’s interpretation of the events at Shöngraben? How does Tolstoy use the engagement to elaborate his ideas in later parts of the novel? What are the implications for leadership?
The opening scene of War and Peace takes us into the elegant and elaborate world of Petersburg and Moscow society typified by the salons of Anna Pavlovna and Helene Bezukhov. Tolstoy returns to the splendor, frivolity, falsity, indolence, and vanity of such scenes repeatedly in the novel. — Why? What is the point? How are we to react?
Assume Tolstoy is writing about your leadership story like he does Generals Kutuzov and Bonaparte. Which general would he see your story similar to? What would Tolstoy say about how you came to “power”? What would Tolstoy say your “power” is? Do you agree with him or disagree?
Think back on an accomplishment or two in your recent past. How might you explain the causality of the accomplishment? How might Tolstoy?
To what extent, if any, is Pierre a leader? Platon Karataev?
On Leadership by James G March