The theme of this year’s Drucker Challenge essay contest mirrored the complexity concept in that the assignment was to address “Innovation and Inspiration Lessons for Innovatorsfrom the Arts and Sciences”. It seems that through both venues, the essences of leadership and managerial integrity during an age of information overload was an anvil to which issues of decision making and future vision casting were hammered out.
This year, I was honored to be awarded the 9th place winner out of the competition’s top 10 essays submitted. While I was unable to attending the gathering in Vienna, due to several teaching obligations, I did share in celebrating the event through the live feed broadcasted and by reading the various social media updates by seminar contributors.
The discipline of managers maintaining integrity and “managing oneself”– a notion of which Drucker was a pioneer champion, can be easily identified as a need in our ego driven and easily distracted consumeristic culture. Yet this is a serious problem that is unfortunately not isolated to our current time, but has persisted all throughout the ages of history. For example, in the Harvard Business School Press book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leadership” (2002), authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky write that “a hunger for importance can make you discount obvious warnings that you are in danger. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when someone warns him from the crowd, ‘Beware the ides of March’ he discounts the warning, saying ‘He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass’. Caesar was cocksure of himself because he believed that he, rather than his office, was the center of everybody’s world” (p. 171).
To echo Heifets and Linsky’s point, the title of my essay is “Leadership Lessons from the Stories of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Shaw: What Fiction can teach Executives about Effectiveness”. And to continue the celebration of Peter Drucker’s legacy, I will be posting my essay on this blog in several parts. At the conclusion of the three part series, I will be making a link available in order to download the full work in its entirety. For now, I hope you enjoy part 1.
Introduction: Leadership, Literature, and the Liberal Arts
Leadership is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.” (Drucker, 2004. pg. 108)
Peter Drucker believed that leadership, like management, and society should always be focused on improving the quality of life for both the individual and community as a whole. All organizations need effective and ethical executives that can lead them with technical knowledge and a humanistic touch. Since leadership is about motivating, equipping, and training people, there are many lessons from literature and the liberal arts that can shed insights to the human conscience and provide practical, real-world advice for lifting a person or team’s vision, improving their performance, and building the overall potential.
In the 2008 revision of Peter Drucker’s classic Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices, Joseph A. Maciariello, a longtime friend of Drucker’s, brings fresh life to Peter’s manga opus for another new generation of corporate and organizational leaders. In chapter 2: Management as a Social Function and Liberal Art, the authors outline seven basic characteristics of management that are applicable to any enterprise. First, they say that “management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant” (p. 23). Second, the authors note that “because management deals with the integration of people in a common venture, it is deeply embedded in culture.” While management and leadership are similar, they have intentions that are quite different. And although Drucker, the “Father of Modern Management”, never explicitly wrote a book on leadership, he nonetheless had much to say on the topic. In essence, management and leadership are two sides of the same coin. Both are needed in different ways for any organization to grow and make a contribution to the greater good of the society. As for a short distinction, management focuses on processes while leadership focuses on people. Therefore leadership, the heart of management, is also a liberal art.
Drucker wrote that because management “deals with people, their values, their growth, and development— this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with the impact on social structure and the community…Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art: ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on ethics as well as on the physical sciences… For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through and in which the humanities will again acquire recognition, impact, and relevance” (2008, pg. 24-25). Therefore, managers and leaders are transformational change agents for society. Their responsibilities extend beyond their organizations and into the world where people are, where life happens.
Leaders are Readers:
People create culture and culture creates societies. Culture consists of the shared values, beliefs, worldviews, and accepted behaviors among a specific people group. Traditionally, the most common outlet for expressing a culture came in the form of stories. Because people are innovative, imaginative, and adaptive creatures, any reflection on the work of some of history’s most influential writers is worth considering. Reading the famous narratives of the past is a great way to analysis the present, as well as, plan for the future. Therefore, fiction has much to teach executives about effectiveness.
The adage is true, “leaders are readers”. Anyone desiring to lead effectively will not only commit to hours of studying industry trends, the global economy, and local affairs, but will also allocate a significant percentage of time to enriching themselves through reading. A serious reflection on topics outside of a one’s industry, yet still relevant to a culture of consumers and contributors, will improve their leadership performance. And while reviewing news articles, data spreadsheets, and other factually based research is important for the immediate response, fictional narratives provide leaders with a larger perspective into the intrinsic nature of humanity.
In a recent IdeaCast titled “Read Fiction and be a Better Leader” from the Harvard Business Review blog, Harvard business school professor Joseph Badaracco shared his wisdom from years of teaching leadership. In the interview, Badaracco states that “what makes literature so valuable in the classroom is that it helps students really get inside individuals who are making decisions. It helps them see things as these people in the stories actually see them. And that’s because the inner life of the characters is imagined and described, in many cases, by brilliant writers whose sense of how people really think and how they really work have been tested by time over decades or even centuries.” Badaracco goes on to say that “you could describe what fiction does particularly well is it introduces people to ethical complexities. And some of the complexities are around the ethical principles. Others are more emotional, psychological around things involving self-discipline, focus. They really see the large, complex, sometimes messy sphere of things that are genuinely ethical.”
In Steven Snyder’s book Leadership and the Art of the Struggle (2013), Snyder reflects on his former classmate’s work by saying that “Badaracco’s premise was that fiction opens a new portal on leadership, deepening the understanding of leadership as a human endeavor, a reality that is often absent in other leadership approaches. By delving into the raw humanity of these flawed yet often heroic characters, Badaracco guided his students to a compelling insight: leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is” (p. 5). In a similar vein to Badaracco’s interview, famed management consultant Jim Collins advocates the priority of reading of fiction. Under the articles section of his website, the disciple of Drucker applauds several long lists of recommend readings, of which management books are scarce. In the article entitled “Book Value” which originally appeared on Inc. in 1996, Collins states that “Executives should read fewer management books. I don’t mean that reading is a waste of their time; on the contrary, they should read more. The question is what to read. My own view is that only one book in twenty should be a business book… More importantly, outstanding leaders and thinkers often get their best insights by reading outside their primary field.” With just a quick glance at the large list, one can see that the majority of books recommended by Collins are either fictional or historical. Be they narratives or biographies, the principle is the same: people learn about themselves and others through reading about the lives of various characters.
Collins, who wrote forwards to two books by Drucker, The Daily Drucker (2004) and Management (2008), echoed his mentor’s own sentiments. In a Bloomberg Business week column, “The Drucker Difference”, Rick Wartzman, the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, wrote a piece in August 2009 entitled “Management as a Liberal Art”. In it he recalls what Drucker wrote to a friend in 1997. He cites that Drucker penned: “I am rereading each summer—and have for many years—the main novelists.” Drucker then added “I never read management books; all they do is corrupt the style.” As this example shows and others have been noted, any significant trend in management, leadership, and organizational or societal thinking can be traced back to Peter Drucker.
With this understanding of what leadership can learn from the liberal arts and literature, the remaining portion of this essay will look at six classic stories from three of the Western world’s most influential, fictional writers: William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, and George Bernard Shaw. Instead of retelling each story, the metanarrative themes will be drawn out, analyzed, and then compared to Drucker’s thoughts on the subject matter, thus providing leadership lessons applicable for effective executives today.
William Shakespeare: The Fall of Charismatic Leaders
“The desire for charisma is a political death wish. What matters is not charisma. What matters is whether the leader leads in the right direction or misleads.” (Drucker, 2004. pg. 50)
Peter Drucker did not consider charisma an important quality in leadership. Instead of focusing on exhibiting a dynamic personality, Drucker instead advocated the need for responsibility, transparency, and accountability. In his book, Managing the Nonprofit Organization (1990) Drucker states that the three most charismatic leaders of the twentieth century were the horrific trio of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Indeed, these men were not leaders, but rather “misleaders”. Much like Shakespeare’s stories of Julius Caesar and Macbeth, when leaders become consumed with their ego their ability to equip their people fails. Leadership then becomes about maintaining a position of power instead of empowering others. An unhealthy amount of charisma can lead to narcissism. Much like the Greek myth of Narcissus, for whom the sin of vanity is named from, many like him find their fate in tragic death.
Essentially, the story of Julius Caesar (1971) is less about the man who ruled Rome and more about how his arrogant and charismatic personality was potentially the character flaw that led to his untimely death, a civil war in Rome, and the beginning of the end of the world’s most powerful empire. Caesar, a successful war general assumed a dictatorship over the populous. While Rome was still technically a republic, Caesar had ultimate say. Though the conspirators who plotted his murder did not approve of his authoritative style, many in Rome loved him for the joy that he gave the people. Nonetheless, to this author’s interpretation, Caesar’s demise was a result of his own haughtiness. It is rare that conceit produces consensus in leadership.
William Cohen, the first graduate of Peter Drucker’s executive Ph.D program, in his book Drucker on Leadership (2010) writes that of the “Seven Deadly Sins of Leadership” the Sin of Pride is the worst. Cohen writes that “the problem comes when leaders believe themselves so special that ordinary rules no longer apply. Generalized pride—as opposed to being proud of specific things—is the most serious leadership sin because it can lead to the other six. Sometimes even the perception of what the leader does while committing this sin will make things far worse” (p. 87). This was certainly the case with Julius Caesar. His victories in the political arena and battlefield gave him a pride that lead to his belief that he was invincible and even divine. Unfortunately this also led to his downfall. However, as Alan Axelrod points out in his book Julius Caesar CEO (2012) “if language is any measure, Julius Caesar set a cross-cultural, pan-historical standard of leadership. Not long after he was assassinated, the name “Caesar” became a synonym for ruler” (p. 2).
Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth (1971) mirrors the bloody assignation of Caesar and also the corruption of power in leadership. Macbeth, a Scottish Thane, is consumed with pride and ambition, so much so that he kills the Duncan, the King of Scotland and assumes the crown. However, once in charge Macbeth becomes incredibly obsessed with keeping his rule that he disregards any morality. Power hungry and paranoid, he ends up having anyone who threatens his kingdom killed. This leads to distrust among Macbeth’s own army and he is eventually assassinated. Again, it was charisma and pride that led to the fall of a once great leader. However, as Cohen points out, charisma is not always a bad thing in leadership. He writes, that “leaders should heed Drucker’s warning not to become misleaders, but charisma… is useful as a component of Drucker’s requirement to lead and motivate workers to peak performance” (p. 209). This type of leadership is what James McGregor Burns calls in his classic book Leadership (2010) transformational leadership as opposed to the traditional tyrannical type of transactional leadership.