by: Issues: July / August 2001. Tags: Strategy. Categories: Strategy.

As this Ivey Business Journal regular contributor points out, “the difference between success and failure is marginal, and executives need all the help they can get.” Literature may be an unlikely source for an executive seeking to establish a sustainable competitive advantage, but as the author also points out, “the link between literature and successfully running an enterprise is not as far-fetched as it may first appear.” The reason is that managing successfully means managing people, and one of the best sources of insight into human behaviour and sound judgment is good literature. In this article, the author suggest two excellent books, whose wisdom and observations are invaluable for CEO or manager today.

Successfully running an enterprise in today’s rapidly changing, fiercely competitive business environment is no small achievement. Increasingly, the difference between success and failure is marginal. Executives need all the help they can get. An unlikely source with considerable potential to help is literature, everything from ballads, epics, fables and myths to novels, plays, poems and short stories. Journalism and technical writing do not count, but most executives get more than a fill there anyway.

Executives who took the Coles Notes or Classics Comics approach to their high school and college literature courses may or may not have fooled their teachers. Regardless, they surely squandered a wonderful opportunity to add to their capacity to run an enterprise. There is still time! Executives will find real value reading beyond the latest on business conditions, quality control, risk management, brand loyalty and goodwill amortization.

The link between literature and successfully running an enterprise is not as far-fetched as it may first appear. Management is getting things done that are worth doing through people, and then seamlessly turning over the reins when the time is right, thus demonstrating decision-making, execution and succession planning. Ask executives why they are not getting the results they want and invariably the answers have something to do with people. The “people” may be superiors, colleagues, rank-and-file workers, customers, suppliers, shareholders, bankers, regulators, the media or even adversaries and competitors. But always, it is people!

Enter literature. Literature is about people and what makes them tick—what they are; why they are, what they are; why they do, what they do; why they feel, as they feel; and how they change. The difference between good and bad literature is not so much writing technique, plot and theme, as it is character development, insight into human behaviour, the thoughtful assessment of situations and wise judgment about options, choices and consequences. Give an executive insight, judgment and the ability to read people and situations and he/she is generally off to the races. Lack of information is not what gets most enterprises into trouble; it is misreading people and situations.

Put another way, literature is about the gamut of human emotions—the likes of courage, generosity, honesty, honour, justice, kindness, patience, arrogance, ego, envy, greed, lying, overreaction and vacillation. Through story and image, literature develops the likely consequences of each of these attributes. Whatever the problem the executive faces, there is a parallel in literature, where it all ends either well or badly depending on how people and situations were handled. The well-read executive may have a better sense of the likely consequences of various courses of action. The well-read executive may have a better sense of his/her own tendencies, especially under pressure, when the stakes are highest and the worst in a person is most likely to emerge. The well-read executive may have a better sense of how others are likely to behave in various circumstances. And the well-read executive may have a better sense of how to influence others. Executives lead through communication. If literature is anything, it is communication—the writer to the reader. Executives wanting to improve their communication skills will find literature has plenty to offer.

Gaining a business advantage is one reason executives should read literature. Another, perhaps even better reason, is to relax and get in touch with oneself. The pressures on the 21st-century executive are immense: Quarterly earnings growth is never quite enough; shareholders always want more; change relentlessly accelerates; uncertainty and unpredictability continually rise; competitors only get tougher and smarter; ever more stressed and anxious staff; non-stop hard choices; constant travel; terrible hours; never enough time for family, friends, recreation, reflection and solitude. What executive does not need to get just plain lost for awhile. There are a lot worse places to get lost than in a piece of good literature. Executives are, above all, pragmatic. I suspect that what stands between many of them and literature is not that they do not see value, but that they have no idea where to begin. High school and college courses are light-years away. What to read and how to read it can be daunting concerns. Making a connection with management can be even more daunting, if that is a goal.

For the executive wanting to take the literature plunge, two books are just what the doctor ordered: Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, Scribner, 2000, and John O. Whitney and Tina Packer, Power Plays, Simon and Schuster, 2000. They are splendid!

My own background is in mathematics, physics, quantitative economics, management science and finance. This is hardly a background that qualifies one to recommend literature to executives. But I have long had an interest in the management-literature connection, albeit an unfocused and unsophisticated one. When I read, I always felt I was missing about 50 percent of what was there. If you have ever felt the same way, these books will do the trick.

First, read Harold Bloom. Every literature course I took and every book I have ever read would have meant more, had I first read Bloom. He does a truly startling thing: In plain language, he teaches you how to read to get maximum benefit, understanding and pleasure. People do most things, from riding a bicycle to managing a stock portfolio, much better with a little instruction from someone who actually knows what they are doing—a professional. Why should reading be any different? Yes, See Spot Run taught many executives how to read. But Bloom will teach you HOW to read!

Harold Bloom is well qualified to teach reading. He is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, Berg Professor of English at New York University, a former professor at Harvard, a MacArthur Prize Fellow and the author of more than 20 books. In the words of his publisher, he has spent more than 40 years transforming “college students into lifelong readers with his unrivalled love for literature.” Do not underestimate the effect of a lifetime in the classroom. Whatever your subject, the light eventually goes on and you really understand how people learn and do not learn. You become a teacher, and Bloom is a teacher.

Bloom explains what his book is all about in the second sentence. “Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found.” Give an executive wisdom and you can forget the MBA! Bloom tells us to read: to “weigh and consider”; to “strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests”; for “self-improvement”; because “we cannot know enough people profoundly enough”; to “know ourselves better”; and because “we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.”

Bloom’s book has an order and structure that busy, results-oriented executives will find pleasing. In successive parts, he tackles how and why one should read the short story, poem, novel and play. In the process, he takes the reader through many of the great works of history. Bloom instructs thro ugh a reference-and-example approach that has a refreshing “how to” practicality not generally found in eminent theoreticians. He is obviously a gifted scholar, but he has that ability to be understood by the novice. Would that more instruction manuals for VCRs and barbecue assembly were written with such clarity! Bloom will show you how to tangle with, among others, Austen, Browning, Cervantes, Chekhov, Coleridge, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, James, Melville, Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman and Wilde.

Two of Bloom’s favourites are Cervantes and Shakespeare. Bloom calls Cervantes, “Shakespeare’s only possible rival in the imaginative literature of the past four centuries.” Don Quixote is “the first and best of all novels.” Don Quixote himself “is the peer of Hamlet, and Sancho Panza is a match for Sir John Falstaff. Higher praise I do not know how to render.” Why read Don Quixote? “There are parts of yourself you will not know fully until you know, as well as you can, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”

To Bloom, Shakespeare is “the best of all dramatists. “He reads you more fully than you can read him.” The esteem that Bloom holds for Shakespeare is apparent in the title of another Bloom book: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, where Bloom asks just how much Shakespeare’s characters made us what we are?

Some executives might find particular insight in one of Bloom’s observations on Shakespeare. In Shakespeare, according to Bloom, everyone has trouble listening; they prefer talking. Had Hamlet, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra just listened, things might very well have turned out better. So it is often in business. Examine a business situation gone bad and there is a good chance you will find, somewhere in the chain of failure, an executive who did not listen. The executive was told but never heard.

Business schools now pride themselves on teaching communications. Would that the communications courses saw attention and listening to be as important as talking and presenting. In the same vein, maybe learning how to follow is as important as learning how to lead. What executive is not both leader and follower; yet it is leadership that gets all the coverage.

Bloom’s discussion of Shakespeare sets up Whitney and Packer’s book. Bloom instructs on how and why to read Shakespeare in general; Whitney and Packer apply Shakespeare to managing. It is a tour de force! Shakespeare might or might not have had the temperament to be a great executive; but as an executive’s coach, the way Whitney and Packer present him, you could not do much better. In a sense, Shakespeare as explained by Whitney and Packer reminds me of Peter Drucker: just plain wise, chock full of common sense.

To Whitney and Packer, leadership is what links Shakespeare to management practice. Executives lead; it is what they do. Whitney and Packer: “Successful CEOs are great leaders, and William Shakespeare probed more deeply into the problems of leadership than anyone before him and most who came after.…He is arguably the Western tradition’s greatest thinker and student of human psychology.…The one subject he returns to again and again is leadership.”

Through Shakespeare’s plays and themes, Whitney and Packer track the three great issues of executive leadership. Part I covers power: Want to know “how to get it, how to keep it, what to do when you have it, and how you lose it—then Shakespeare is your man.” Part II deals with communication and persuasion—“Leadership is theatre. To be in charge is to act the part. ‘All the world’s a stage.’” Part III integrates values, vision, mission and strategy in the great “search within.” Whitney and Packer cover all the management bases and introduce you to so many characters: not just Coriolanus (rigidity problems); Hamlet (decision-making problems); Lady Macbeth (ambition problems); Lear (succession problems); Othello (personnel problems); Richard II (leadership problems); but modern executives like GE’s Jack Welch,’s Jeff Bezos and Sunbeam’s “Chainsaw Al” Dunlop, as seen through Whitney and Packer’s Shakespearean prism.

Three Power Plays management references should whet the appetite. If your problem is personnel selection, do consider Othello on the consequences of a bad choice. The obvious choice for the vacant number-two position is the loyal, experienced, brave Iago; instead Othello picks the staff man, Michael Cassio. Iago gives new meaning to “don’t get mad, get even.” He ruins Othello. Othello’s first mistake was the bad appointment; the bigger mistake was keeping Iago around and then not managing him properly. Think hard about appointments; think hard about what you do about those you pass over.

If your problem is succession and the use of advice, then King Lear is for you. Nearing the end, Lear devises a silly game to determine who will get what in his empire among his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. Kent, his loyal adviser, tells him to get a grip, and for his troubles, he gets fired. Lear presses on, disinherits the deserving Cordelia and anoints the treacherous Goneril and Regan in a doomed co-leader arrangement that in the end costs Lear everything. Co-leaders do not work. Do not play games with the staff; take advice from your advisers—that is why you hired them.

If your problem is making a decision, Hamlet is the ultimate: “To be or not to be.” In fairness, Hamlet does not get dealt a good hand. His father, the King of Denmark, dies, and by the time Hamlet gets home from Germany, his uncle, Claudius, has married his mother, Gertrude, and installed himself as King, even though Hamlet was the heir. Hamlet then gets a visit from his father’s ghost, who tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him and that he should avenge his death. What follows is tragedy after tragedy as Hamlet finally dithers his way, at the end of the play, to action. Whitney and Packer’s assessment of Hamlet? It is the paralysis of analysis brought on in part by “conflict in what we business school professors call his ‘external decision models.’”

Hamlet’s dithering and its consequences bring to mind a business-school professor I had in the 1960s. I paraphrase: “When confronted with a problem, the best thing to do is make a good decision; next best is a bad decision; worst is no decision. Staff and others need an answer; they are not entitled to the answer they want but they are entitled to an answer.”

High technology, especially e-business, the theme of this issue of the Ivey Business Journal, sounds light-years away from the world of literature. But high technology is just one more thing executives have to manage. Literature properly read can tell executives a lot about managing. Read How to Read and Why and Power Plays; they will open your eyes to the potential. Read, find some peace, learn, grow, become a better executive. Enjoy!

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact