Questions of Character

What are readings from Sophocles, Chinua Achebe, and Joseph Conrad doing in a Harvard Business School course? And why is the professor talking about students’ “internal struggle?” After all, during the past several decades, many American business schools have gained academic stature by privileging scientific research over vocational training, and by turning out students who can master a spreadsheet. Leading professors publish their work in scholarly journals that emphasize complex economic and financial analysis, statistical multiple regressions, and laboratory psychology. Students arrive prepared for the mathematical rigors of an M.B.A. because most majored in business or accounting as undergraduates and subsequently worked in investment banking or management consulting before enrolling.

The result has been legions of technical experts, but not necessarily well-rounded leaders capable of facing the trials of the corporate world or providing a moral compass for their organizations. Increasingly, business schools are recognizing the need to supplement student training with lessons from the humanities in order to prepare students as well for the messy human struggles they are also likely to meet after graduation.

“Fiction can be as instructive about leadership and organizational behavior as any business textbook,” Shad professor of business ethics Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. explained in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. For the past 10 years, Badaracco has taught literature to second-year M.B.A. students in an effort to expose them to important issues of character they might not otherwise encounter in their course work. His elective course, HBS 1562, “The Moral Leader,” consistently draws a crowd. “I think the students sense a lack in their own training. The rest of the curriculum focuses on analytical techniques and doesn’t leave much room for self-reflection,” he says.

Badaracco has honed a repertoire of literary “case studies”—works of fiction that highlight some of the moral hazards of high-stakes leadership—that he outlines in a recent book based on his course, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature (HBS Press). In Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, for instance, the tragic downfall of the Nigerian tribal chief Okonkwo illustrates the dangers of rigidly adhering to traditional codes in the face of unprecedented external challenges—in this case, the onslaught of colonial forces. “To have a sound moral code,” Badaracco says, “a leader needs to engage in an open and ongoing way the moral and practical life that surrounds him.”

When leaders encounter complex crises, Badaracco argues, flexibility may be more important than firmness. In his book, he cites the example of a high-powered executive who joined a friend’s firm in order to straighten out the company’s management problems. When the executive discovered fraudulent accounting, he chose to step down rather than participate in unethical practices; his resignation—morally admirable on the surface—in turn sparked suspicion in the markets, causing the company’s stock price to plummet and the firm to declare bankruptcy. Badaracco contends that a harder course for the executive would have been to give the president and the board a choice: they could either accept his resignation or agree to make critical changes—“to restate the company’s financial statements, introduce strict financial controls, restructure its operations to conserve cash, and focus solely on its most promising markets.” This approach would have given the company at least a chance to survive.

The nearly 2,500-year-old play Antigone offers students another view of the tragic consequences that may ensue when leaders fail to weigh the many sides of an issue. “Sophocles strongly suggests that good reflection, for individuals and especially for leaders, is the equivalent of sitting at the center of a spider’s web and vigilantly sensing what is happening along many different dimensions of a situation,” Badaracco writes.

Badaracco’s course also explores the dangers of success—an enduring and useful theme for students in today’s winner-take-all economy. In Louis Auchincloss’s novel I Come as a Thief, the protagonist, Tony Lowder, provides an example of the personal costs of failing to distance oneself from the pressures and seductions of success. By looking closely at Tony’s story, Badaracco writes, “we learn the ways in which success works as a psychological and emotional anesthetic. Its victims don’t know their inner lives have shriveled and their healthy instincts have grown dull.”

Badaracco hopes his course has moved students to think seriously about character as they chart their paths through the ranks of business management. “Leadership is the kind of topic that people usually hear about in some kind of exciting inspirational address,” he says. “But in reality, it’s hard and risky work. I think literature focuses on the aspects of leadership that are a struggle—whether it’s internal struggle, struggle against fate, or struggle with other people who you thought were on your side.”

~Ashley Pettus


Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. e-mail address: [email protected]

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