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How literature can make you a better leader

When wrestling with a moral dilemma, an executive’s first instinct may be to browse business books, turn to a friend, or review a case study or two.

But according to Brooke Vuckovic, they might be better off cracking open Antigone, the classical Greek tragedy by Sophocles.

"Fine masters of literature are expert at revealing the messy underbellies of our nature," says Vuckovic, a clinical professor of leadership at Kellogg. "Fiction gives us access to the inner workings of the individual’s mind and motivations, something that is missing in sanitized case studies. Ironically, fiction is a much more accurate source for understanding the moral problems that business leaders face."

That was the motivation behind The Moral Leader, an MBA course Vuckovic introduced at Kellogg last year, which landed her a nomination as the Lavengood Outstanding Professor of the Year. Students in the class read a diverse set of novels, plays, and short stories intended to help them evaluate their moral frameworks and think critically about how they exercise power, empathy, and moral reasoning in their own lives.

Vuckovic discusses five texts from the course, and what they have to say about the moral complexity that leaders face.

"Mrs. Sen’s"

Short story from the collection Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Mrs. Sen is a woman who has moved to the US, a stranger in a strange land, far away from her family. A boy that she’s babysitting becomes her only lifeline to human connection.

Experiencing Mrs. Sen’s profound sense of alienation begs the reader to evaluate and reflect upon it. The week we read this, I ask students to take the time to really "see" someone that they wouldn’t usually see—it might be their doorman, it might be the barista, it might be a friend—and to slow down to listen and connect more deeply. And then to ask: what keeps us from doing that routinely?

The capacity to empathize is central to moral decision-making—you must be able to understand the implications of your actions when weighing options. Empathy is also an important leadership skill. Yet, social-science research shows us that as people become more powerful, their capacity for empathy typically wanes, unless it’s actively cultivated. "Mrs. Sen’s" provides a powerful reminder of its importance.


Play by Sophocles

Sophocles’ classic drama tells the story of Creon, the king of Thebes, and Antigone, who challenges his authority when he forbids the burial of her brother. It’s a play that highlights "recognition": the moment when characters realize that the way they’ve viewed the world is incomplete or just plain wrong. Creon’s absolute clarity that the concerns of the city outweigh duty to family crumbles as he realizes his moral inflexibility led to the death of not only Antigone, who disobeyed him, but also his wife and son.

In addition, we focus on the characters’ points of view and how they persuade others. What’s most important: Duty to family? To the gods? To the state? How do you speak to people who have a completely different foundation to their moral arguments? This is certainly a pressing concern in our political climate.

Finally, because Antigone is a classic Greek tragedy, there’s a chorus—this group of people off to the side, commenting routinely on the characters’ actions and issuing warnings. The idea of a chorus is relevant for all leaders: Who’s challenging you? Who’s reading the signs when you cannot? Because if you’re depending only on yourself to recognize errors in your thinking, good luck. It’s really easy, left to our own devices, to miss critical insights.

"How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

Short story by Leo Tolstoy

Pahom is a peasant in 19th century Russia. The devil tempts him with more and more land, and he dies in his pursuit of it. So the answer to "How much land does a man need?" turns out to be only 6 feet: enough to hold his coffin.

Greed is not new. If we assume that it’s part of our nature, how can we account for that to safeguard our professional lives, so we are not consumed by it?

In class, I connect this story to a modern Pahom figure: Rajat Gupta, the former CEO at McKinsey & Company who was convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy. Gupta started off from modest beginnings, yet reached a point where his $100 million didn’t seem to be enough. It was a paltry achievement when compared to the billionaires that he was running with.

Gupta’s desire for more, and those who manipulated this desire, offer many parallels to Tolstoy’s parable. We all like to believe we have a handle on greed, telling ourselves "that’s not an issue for me." But when you read Tolstoy’s masterful tale, it’s harder to say this with conviction.

"Jumping Monkey Hill"

Short story from the collection The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A British gentleman is giving a writer’s workshop for African writers, the purpose of which is to award a prize for the best African writing. But the structure of the workshop is flawed, with the characters struggling to make sense of it.

I use this story to illustrate the different vantage points people can have towards individuals and groups during professional exchanges. We reflect on the structure of the workshop itself as well as the participants and their perspectives. For example, the white Brit believes that he is doing good with this workshop. He does not see the absurdity in someone like him pronouncing what is "African enough."

Furthermore, when the Brit makes a series of inappropriate comments to the main character, Ujunwa, no one speaks up. Ujunwa, in turn, doesn’t know how to name what’s happening to her. Why is she laughing at inappropriate remarks? Why aren’t others saying anything when they occur? Do they notice?

Adichie is a master at revealing the undersides of power and privilege. There are lessons here about how you can find the language to describe what’s happening when you’re under siege—and how, as a leader, you might structure groups and interactions so that the power dynamics are productively suited to the task at hand.

Remains of the Day

Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

People talk a lot about developing a moral code: Do you have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong? But having a code is very different than being able to morally reason—to determine whether a particular action is right or wrong.

In Remains of the Day, the main character, Stevens, is a butler, an "agent of another," as most of us are. His moral code is tightly wrapped around "excellence in butlering," holding himself to the highest standards of his profession, as well as absolute loyalty to the gentleman he is serving, Lord Darlington. But Stevens is incapable of moral reasoning beyond that code and, as a result, he offloads moral reasoning to his employer. For instance, when Lord Darlington tells him he needs to fire two maids because they are Jewish, Stevens follows the order, even though he disagrees with it. And because of this and other compromises in the name of loyalty, Stevens makes choices that he later regrets.

The novel asks, poignantly, "Excellence at what cost?" Stevens is a deeply-flawed character considering the price of his seemingly clear-cut choices throughout the novel. The lessons his life imparts won’t quickly leave readers.


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