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What a Stanford business school professor thinks Don Quixote has to do with leading Fortune 500 companies
Literature and Leadership
Say you’re thinking about going to business school. A real good one. You’re thinking if I do this I’ll really make it. Lots of doors will open.
While you know you'll deep dive into accounting and managing, merging and acquiring you know everyone says it's really about the network.
You go to meet people and take classes and read and discuss case studies with the actual decision makers involved in the cases.
Then you land in Professor March’s Leadership class. A leader is who you see yourself becoming throughout this MBA experience. It's safe to assume this class will be one of your most important. You get the syllabus. You’re excited and curious to see what magic will transform you into a true leader.
First assignment: Read and prepare to discuss Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes???
First off, this is all true.
Second off, that is one long ass book. What a behemoth of a first assignment.
Third off, wtf? Don Quixote? Literature from 500 years ago?? For my Stanford MBA leadership class? How did this happen? Where am I? Did I mistakenly stumble into some English Lit PhD program?? Turn the wrong corner in the hallway???
From what I can gather about the Professor he was a bit of a contrarian. Always thinking outside the box. So what is the eccentric line of thinking that leads to reading and digesting literature in a fancy leadership class?
The fundamental issues of leadership - the complications involved in becoming, being, confronting, and evaluating leaders are not unique to leadership. They are echoes of critical issues of life more generally. As a result, they are characteristically illuminated more by great literature than by modern essays or research on leadership.
The proper texts for discussing these fundamental issues of leadership are drawn from Shakespeare, Moliére, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Mann, Goethe, Akhmatova, Schiller, Stendhal, Kawabata, Shaw, James, Dostoevsky, Balzac and others of similar stature. Great literature engages these questions in a deeper and more enduring way than other texts. This greater engagement stems from a more profound realization that the issues are to be seen as intractable dilemmas rather than as problems to be solved. They deal with what the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, called “profound truths” - recognizable by the fact that their opposites are also profound truths.
In the next few posts I'll dive into a few books that March assigned to his students in this Stanford Graduate School of Business class in the 90s and point in the direction he pointed. I don't want to spoil any of the plots of the books or rob you of interpreting them for yourselves but I will draw out the ways March saw them as relevant to leadership.
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On Leadership by James G March