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On Leadership Author Thierry Weil Interview in Paris
Background on March's Leadership class at Stanford's Graduate School of Business
I went to undergrad at a place that read old books and talked about them and that was how the “program” was run. I loved the experience and I’ve always had a hunch many others would too. If they only had a context and purpose in which to enjoy it.
Fast forwarding many years to 2014 8 years after finishing undergrad I read a Schumpeter column in The Economist by the name of “Philosopher Kings.” In it the author argues that CEOs of big companies don’t need Outward Bound journeys learning survival skills in the Yukon for days on end. Rather they need Inward Bound journeys in which they’d read and discuss the texts of the world’s greatest thinkers (the author points to and puns much on Plato and Nietzsche to grab a few examples). The author points to the need for thought leadership and personal growth as the main results.
I was enthralled. “You’re telling me I could one day smash together my undergrad and those great book conversations and my grad school focus on the world of organizations?” I can combine these two worlds to create spaces to cultivate personal and intellectual curiosity? Sign me up!
I told my brother about this possibility and he said one of his grad school professors that semester had assigned a book called On Leadership about a class that ran at Stanford Business School in the 90s taught by a Dr James G March. He said all they did in this leadership class was read books like Don Quixote and War and Peace and discuss what they taught us about leadership. He said March went even further than that and claimed that the only way to in fact study leadership was to read literature because leadership is fundamentally about human problems and through literature we see humanity in all its different shapes and sizes and conundrums. I had to read this book. And I did.
Several times now. More times than the author of it. So the author joked to me last week over dinner in Paris.
I reached out to the author Thierry Weil to understand the backstory of the book and to see if he had more examples of both books read in the class, and of course, the great frames and conversation starters March had drafted to cover in the class. Dr Weil has been a professor at Mines Paris for the past several decades and was a visiting scholar at Stanford in the 90s where March was teaching at the time. He’s written many books, taught many classes, advised a Prime Minister, and researched semiconductor technologies now in use in smartphones, and he kindly took the time to tell me about the book and the class I’ve been interested in all these years.
On Leadership is nominally by two authors but in an interesting way. The ideas for the most part are Dr March’s. However, he never wrote them all down in book form. Instead he had notes and what he called “queries” that kicked off the conversation among his Stanford B school students. From these notes and queries a sometimes student and collaborator from Paris, Thierry Weil wrote the book. He had never even taken the class!
You see Dr March only taught the class every other year and the year Thierry was there was an off year but nonetheless his curiosity about the topics, the popularity of the class and the format drove him years later to collect all the materials into book form. A book that March even wrote the forward for, in a sense, blessing it as legit, while still pointing to the interestingness of the authorship.
As mentioned, March taught the class every other year. It was a popular one with students and faculty both fighting to get in. It was a conversational class in which students would read, say War and Peace (🤯) and come to class having been asked to ponder a few of March’s “queries”. That’s it. Simple. But, of course, a lot. A lot a lot. Big books. Bigger ideas. Deep questions. A flesh and blood example of the Schumpeter column vision in “Philosopher Kings.”
Next I’m going to read the book Dr Weil gifted me. And ask if he can track down any of the materials he used to write On Leadership. What I want are more examples of books read in the class and more topics discussed relating the books to leadership. I’ll keep you posted about what I learn. 🙂
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