Leadership Lessons in Literature

I once heard a screenwriter conducting a workshop in Los Angeles opine, “There are no new stories, only new treatments.”  At the time I thought it was pretty cynical.  I do not think I agree with it still, but I have come to learn that some stories are timeless and therefore are repeated in different form across time and cultures.  Literature and mythology often contain wisdom that is deep in our collective. Different stories give us different ways to remember.

So when one of my executive team clients suggested that we incorporate a book discussion into their quarterly strategy retreat, I was very happy to join the experiment as facilitator.  But I also recommended against reading business books.  The quarterly fare has included short stories, novels, mythology from many cultures and even epic poetry.  The conversations that have come forward have many times been quite remarkable.

In an economic climate where money is in short supply for executive development, I have found an executive reading round-table to be a very effective way to both create community and deepen thinking and debate about leadership.  In recent years, I have facilitated or launched a half dozen of these regular gatherings in companies large and small.  It can be a little threatening at first, or even seem a waste of time to the more rational thinkers in the group.  But these groups have, without fail, blossomed into serious discussions of leadership that continue to benefit those participating.  At this point, only one as disbanded- and that only after the company sold.

This is not a unique idea, and certainly not mine.  Joseph Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School describes his conversations about leadership based on literature in his book Questions of Character (there is a link in the book section on the right).  In fact, I based the early reading lists for my first two groups on his selections, which include Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and Sophocles’ Antigone.  Once started, most groups get very engaged in choosing their reading and can make some really interesting choices.  In the last year, I have had groups work with: The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Odyssey, Arthurian legent and the myths of Orpheus, Phaeton,  Persephone and Innana.

These are not book clubs or book report groups.  Participants take themes on as true challenges to their understanding and agreements about leadership.  It can take a few cycles for the process to catch on, but soon, groups meet with an expectation that everyone will not only have read the work, but come prepared with opinions, ideas, examples and comparisons to challenges the business faces today.

I am pleased to say that this will be a regular category on the Leaders’ Notebook.  I have permission from some clients to discuss their explorations of leadership through literature and myth here.  Look for the first, based on the current best seller, Three Cups of Tea next week.