Leadership Lessons from Literature: Reviving Business Wisdom

Where Leaders Get Business Knowledge

Where do leaders get business knowledge from? Business education, such as it is in the post-modern era, tends to move a learner in the direction of developing competence in the areas of business that are scientific, measurable, and results based.

There is a simple, yet counterintuitive, reason for this trend: previous to the industrialization efforts of the long 20th century (1840 to 1997) the market, the economy, and the society of the Western world placed high value on attaining technical competency in either white collar, or blue-collar work. Which means the organizational management man had to be trained to think and act in a technically competent fashion in the same way that the organizational employee man had to be molded.

Higher education followed this trendline (so did the K-12 system, but that’s another blog post for another day) and thus, at the end of the Industrial Revolution, colleges and universities the West produced more MBAs than at any other time in history.

The pre-Industrialized world of work, however, gave primacy—and market share in the realm of ideas—to the people who were educated in the humanities: arts, literature, language (particularly Greek and Latin) and yes, of course, mathematics, but also rhetoric.

The pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-post-modern era educated business man knew how to do several things that, in our scientism driven post-modern era, we have forgotten:

  • Make an argument that was both emotionally and rationally compelling.
  • Build a product that was both beautiful and functional.
  • Sell to a market that was a mix of the educated, the uneducated, and the indifferent alike without losing his (or her) own equanimity in the process.

We believe that in our confused, complacent, and inconsistent era, it is time to return the pre-Industrial Revolution First Principles of business and management operations.

There are three valid reasons to return to the pre-Industrial Revolution mode of business learning and thought, in our times:

  1. We must be about the business of saving the overall ontological culture of the West.
  2. We must expose and root out the poor and mediocre technical, robotic, inhuman leadership that reigns in many organizations today.
  3. We must equip, encourage and edify leaders of today for the challenges the remainder of the technologically unknowable 21st century will bring.

Fundamentally, this is where lessons gleaned from the Great Books of Western Literature can help us think, act, and be better as business leaders.

Leadership Lessons from Literature

What constitutes a “great” book? The post-modern, emotionally driven, algorithmically manipulated, Western mind, upon hearing (or reading) the words “the Great Books of Western Literature” immediately an instinctively recoils in disgust.

The reason for this is simple: We in the West collectively and individually, have merrily pulled apart—or deconstructed, if you will—the literary accomplishments of the past 2,500 years in an effort to strip mine scientific truth while sacrificing the transcendental meaning required to act in an impactful way in the world.

Much of the blame for this deconstruction can be lain at the feet of thinkers and writers that sought Enlightenment without the transcendental (Rousseau the most notorious among them) and their followers who took the argument (or premise, if you will) to its logical—and horrific—conclusion (Nietzsche).

However, for the “average” business leader and learner, all of that history seems like so much dusty, irrelevant and uninteresting claptrap. This is because, in the process of replacing the pursuit of the transcendent with the pursuit of pure profit, much business education abandoned the field of ethics, philosophy, and theology to the radical thinkers.

This has created a post-modern business leader who can raise money after bilking investors, and be praised in the public for how “smart” and “savvy” he is. It has also created an environment where reading business literature—much if it quite good, yet quite repetitive as well—to behave more subtly in a manner ill-befitting a leader, becomes more valuable than reading actual, historically great literature.

We’ll put it simply: There’s more to learn—and glean— about courage in business situations from Jane Austen than from all the fine research and writing of Brené Brown.

And the way to glean such knowledge is not to critique the text, critique the motives of the writer, or to critique the poverty of the historical moment they wrote in (although you can do that) but instead to seek to think critically about three areas in relation to the literature as a business leader:

  1. What is this book actually trying to say about leadership?
  2. What in this book can I apply, as a leader, to working with the people, the processes, or the product I am seeking to put into the world?
  3. What is this book cautioning me to avoid, watch out for, or prepare for that I can’t see myself?

When we can think critically about a piece of literature—fiction or nonfiction, it doesn’t matter—then we are on the path to becoming the leader that we always wanted to be. And all without trying to read, or understand, yet another repetitive business book by a famous business book author.

Lessons Leaders Learn and Apply

What do leaders learn and apply? The pushback on this idea, long-held in the West, that a piece of great historical literature can provide us very smart, very savvy, and very post-modern business leaders with wisdom we may not currently possess, is very strong.

And the objections are articulated in the form of three different assertion which in turn reveal one basic, erroneous, premise:

Objection #1 – “We are smarter now than those racist, bigoted, and religiously driven anti-woman people were in the past. Look at how far all these marginalized groups have come. We can’t go any further by looking back to the past.”

Objection #2 – “We can’t learn anything from the past. That’s a different country, and we don’t live there anymore. The problems we face now are so unique to history and time that only ‘cutting edge’ solutions from the smartest among us, scientifically and rationally applied, can possibly get us out of our leadership travails.”

Objection #3 – “We have all of these people who need to be brought into the fold who have never been represented before. What can a bunch of books from “dead white males” teach us about the unique situations and circumstances of oppressed people who now need the tools to lead us?”

The first objection can, and should, be dismissed as so much anti-intellectual claptrap. This is because great literature, like all great art, rises above the inherent differences between people and serves to unite humanity cross-culturally. To introduce such an objection serves only to continue the downward slide into low ignominy that our current business culture seems intent on following.

The second object can, and should, be addressed by remembering that, for all of our technological prowess, and scientific knowledge, there has been little increase in our ethics, wisdom, or decision-making. The problems that we face now as business leaders and people—problems of greed, uncharitableness, lack of kindness, an inability to read, listen, and think, vanity and narcissism and so may more—have always been a product of the human condition. Technology merely provides a sheen of sophistication to ugly, brutish, and mean behavior. Literature of the past removes this sheen, shows us the Truth underneath, and challenges us to change as leaders.

The final objection is really a restating of the first objection, but in a more deconstructed disguise. The “tools to lead us” are agnostic as too skin color, gender, or national origin. And to believe that the “dead white males” of the past might not have wisdom for us in the current now, is merely a reinvigoration of the very paternalism we object to in the past, but with a corporate veneer.

The basic erroneous premise that lies under all of these objections, and many more, is that leaders of the present must be slaves to the present, and that the past never mattered, and the future is an irrelevancy. Such a premise leads leaders to not only not learn from literature of the past, it also breeds an anti-intellectual, narrowly patrician, complacency that allows unethical behavior to pass without comment, for organizations to be built that only expressly exist to transform human attention and experience into clicks and cash, and leads to the endless hollowing out of the heart of the West.

Why Leaders Ignore History

Leaders are readers, at the end of the day. And leaders are also listeners, critical thinkers, and they are intentional actors upon the world stage. And it doesn’t much matter if that stage is in a small business in Peoria, Illinois or a large business in Mumbai, India.

To support these leaders; to explore the lessons of history; to encourage more critical thinking and to discourage click bait driven, attention-grabbing nonsense; to add to the heart of Western culture, rather than to take


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