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Better Management Through Belles Lettres

Literature at the B-school

At six o’clock on a Wednesday evening last spring, dozens of students at Columbia Business School jostled into William C. Warren Hall to learn how the study of literature might prepare them for executive success. They were there to attend “Leadership Through Fiction,” a three-hour weekly course led by adjunct associate professor Bruce Craven, a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter turned business school administrator.

Craven was all smiles as he stood in the middle of an ultramodern amphitheater, radiating can-do energy and West Coast cool. This evening, the class was discussing Little Big Man, Thomas Berger’s 1964 parody of the western genre. Narrated by 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims to be the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the novel moves briskly through a series of gruesome confrontations between the Cheyenne tribes and white settlers in the nineteenth century. But Craven did not begin the class discussion by pointing to the history of colonial conquest or its attendant politics of racial genocide, as one might expect in a literature class. What he focused on, rather, was the failure to communicate.

“You can see how ineffective the communication is between the Cheyenne and the settlers,” Craven said. “In their world at the time, violence was the immediate reaction. Yet we can still fall into these kinds of traps. What kinds of insights can we take away from this?”

“These types of situations really make you tough,” one student volunteered. “They thicken your skin. It might be painful, but it can be really beneficial.”

“Good!” Craven said. “Anyone else?”

“I think its good when youre talking with people from different cultures to bring things back to the human level,” said another student. “Talk about things that arent inherently contentious—the weather, your family, children. Thats a good way to bridge the gap.”

“But sometimes conflicts just cant be resolved,” said Brian, a former Navy officer who quickly emerged as one of the classs more outspoken students. “Through a leaders—or a heros—journey, it’s important to realize whats worth fighting for, and when you shouldnt compromise your values.”

Craven nodded. “It often comes down to finding a balance between protecting your identity—staying true to your identity and your values—and finding common ground.” Then he launched into a story about running an executive coaching program in China. “One of the things I had to practice was listening and not always jumping in as a big loud American trying to talk my way through differences,” he recalled. He reframed this insight with his signature nonchalance. “For the Cheyenne, its like, ‘Our laws are better . . . Our women are hotter . . . Our culture rocks.Its like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Woodstock—but with knives.”

A four-minute promotional video posted online alongside Craven’s syllabus outlines the rationale for repurposing literature as management shibboleth—a teaching philosophy that embraces everything from ordinary self-improvement to solipsistic delusion. The camera leads the viewer to the King’s Highway Diner, just inside Palm Springs, California. Craven sits at the counter, flanked by a pile of books. As he rifles through the stack, he puts on his reading glasses and peers over them intently when he wants to make a point. These novels, he explains, are “narratives about characters in many different professions” who must find a “balance between their professional obligations, their personal expectations, and goals.” Like real people, fictional characters stumble, and it is “through their stumbling,” Craven promises, “that we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.”

The Stumbling Muse

Through my own travels in the literary frontiers of New York, I had heard of classes like Craven’s. Some years earlier, I had received an email from a friend, a former investment banker, tipping me off to a class he was taking at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business called, improbably enough, “The Moral Leader.” “It’s probably a lot like what you do now,” he assured me. “We read novels and plays and poems to try to figure out how they can make us better people.” When I tried to explain that that wasn’t at all what I did—I was a literary critic, not a therapist or a spiritual guru—he seemed distressed. “You should give it a try,” he replied encouragingly, and added, almost as an afterthought: “Plus, you could make a lot more money teaching in a business school than at a college.”

I’m not living that dream, but Bruce Craven is. Last spring, while gathering material for a book on management theory and fiction, I asked if I could sit in on three sessions of “Leadership Through Fiction”—or “LTF,” as Craven likes to call it. “Sounds cool!” Craven responded. “I’ll be the guy with the gray beard, setting up my laptop in front of the class and drinking coffee!”

Craven, a trim and kindly dude who splits his time between New York and his home in Desert Hot Springs, California, is that rare specimen of business school professor who holds neither a PhD nor an MBA. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia and a BA in politics and literature from UC-Santa Cruz. He thought about getting a PhD in English back in the mid-1980s, but the dizzying ascendancy of high theory made him think again. So he took a long road trip with a friend around the United States, which he describes as a kind of homage to Jack Kerouac and to Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. The quasi-autobiographical novel inspired by that journey, Fast Sofa (1993), pitched to a Gen-X audience, did not catch fire. By the time the reviews came out, Craven was broke, living with his parents in New Jersey, and haunting unemployment offices trying to figure out what to do with a BA in literature.

A ruthlessly pragmatic approach is shared by nearly everyone who teaches the course, and it absolves them from the burden of producing authentically empathic people.

The answer came in the form of a cushy administrative job with the Executive Education Program at Columbia, where Craven has worked since the mid-1990s, and where he now serves as program director. But it was only in 2010, after business school elites had begun to feel the aftershocks of the Great Recession, that the dean of Columbia Business School asked him to teach a management course on fiction and leadership ethics. Craven, who was working on several TV pilots and a second novel at the time, leapt at the offer.

By this time, of course, the idea of bringing literature into the business school already had an elite pedigree. A week after Black Monday in 1987, the single largest one-day stock market crash in U.S. history, Harvard professor Robert Coles published a front-page article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review entitled “Books and Business: Gatsby at the B School.” Coles, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, had recently drifted across the river to Harvard Business School (HBS), where he was now course director of a brand-new class: “The Business World: Moral and Social Inquiry Through Fiction.”

The move struck him as a timely one—never before had the business world been in such urgent need of moral and spiritual inquiry. “Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine had been caught trading stocks on insider information,” Coles explained. “Suddenly the subject of ethics in the business world was more explicitly on the minds of everyone.” With the help of a $30 million grant from John Shad, outgoing chairman of the beleaguered Securities and Exchange Commission (also a timely move), Coles’s literature class emerged as one of the first successful experiments in HBS’s fledgling Leadership and Ethics Program. Today, it is offered to the school’s aspiring bankers, entrepreneurs, and management consultants under the catchier name “The Moral Leader.”

Despite this inspired act of rebranding, “The Moral Leader” (and, for that matter, Bruce Craven’s leadership course) does not stray far from the teaching philosophy that Coles first laid out in “Gatsby at the B School” nearly three decades ago. In those days, Coles and one hundred young corporate aspirants would pore over such works as William Carlos Williams’s White Mule, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These novels were selected because they bore “no ideological rancor or animus,” Coles explained in his Times essay. Instead, all the novels on the syllabus attempted “to render faithfully, honestly, fully a way of life familiar to many of us who live and work in what some call the corporate world”: the furious ups and downs of commodities trading, the petty squabbles between office personnel, and the daily commute from “suburban paradises” to dingy urban centers—but above all, the dangers of personal ambition.

For it was ambition—“eager and vulgar ambition,” Coles lamented—that led to the downfall of such fictional characters as Jay Gatsby and Tommy Wilhelm. The same ambition had poisoned the hearts of men like Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine, Charles Keating and Michael Milken—even New York’s legendary stereo retailer “Crazy” Eddie Antar. If only these rich and powerful men had let the stories of the past “work their magic on the heart,” Coles argued in his article, they may have been able to “resist the ever present temptation” of insider trading, fraud, bribery, and whatever other forms of financial impropriety the 1980s had to offer.

Coles, like Craven, displayed little patience for ideology critique, institutional reform, or the radical energies of the “New Left heroes,” whom Coles caricatured in interviews as “mean and cruel” in their blithe dismissal of any particular individual’s unique personhood. Even the “activist youth of the 1960s own homes now,” he observed in U.S. News and World Report. “[They] have to worry about getting and keeping a job and paying the bills.” Experience had taught Coles that it was pointless to begin by changing the system or, in this case, the business school; the best one could do was teach people to act virtuously while they made enough money to pay the bills. And it was the “magic of the storytellers,” Coles told his students, that would arm these future bankers with desperately needed interior canons of self-regulation, just in time for the deregulation of financial markets and weakened supervision from the SEC and Federal Reserve.

The “magic” Coles invokes is the magic of sympathetic identification: the afterglow felt by a reader absorbed in a narrative experience that seemed imminently relatable to his own. Under Coles’s tutelage, to read Seize the Day, the story of a middle-class, middle-aged man driven to financial ruin by a dishonest broker, was not an occasion to reflect on the predatory incentives on Wall Street. Rather it was to recall the emotional roller coaster of speculation. As one young trader testified to Coles with palpable glee, “We went wild with joy one minute, and the next you felt the hand of Death on your shoulder. Once I looked around and said to myself, ‘This is all crazy.’” After having a good chuckle at the craziness of the trading floor, he continued doing what he did best—commodities trading.

Others went so far as to interpret the mandate of empathetic identification with literary protagonists quite literally—a process Coles records in his book The Call of Stories. One student, carrying out an assignment for Coles’s class, had read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and then proceeded to spend an afternoon in downtown Boston, where he begged for food and slept on grates, pretending to be black and impoverished. “His gorge rose in protest” and he returned home, satisfied that his foray into make-believe had taught him what he needed to know. The next year, he graduated from school and joined one of the top corporate law firms in New York City. If this was magic, its spell was weak.

Haven in a Corporate World

In the decades between Black Monday and the Great Recession, Coles’s students have scattered to the winds. Many are in big-city boardrooms. Many more have retired to their suburban paradises with ample money and time on their hands for leisure reading. Most intriguing, however, are the handful of his disciples who now teach versions of “The Business World” at Stanford, University of Virginia, MIT, and Harvard, and who have given Coles’s thirty-year-old class a facelift in accordance with twenty-first-century management principles. Although the focus on the individual remains, they have traded in Coles’s nostalgic yearning for the moral imagination for what management theory calls “the performance of empathy”: the ways in which flexible, self-managing individuals explicitly acknowledge one another’s needs and desires in a collaborative workplace.

In old-school management training, the emphasis was on becoming a hard-nosed leader, putting the company’s bottom line first. In this tradition, you were heading for trouble if you sought to be an empathetic listener, anxiously guarding against employee dissatisfaction with sentimental talk of maintaining a “good work-life balance” and “working to self-actualize.” Yet empathy—and feeling, more generally—is the cornerstone of the current participatory management fad, which recommends empowering employees in workplace decisions. Authoritarian models of command-and-control are out. Empathy, sensitivity, mindfulness, and relationship-building are in. This, at least, is the lesson we may take away from the hundreds of TED talks, training programs, and leadership guides like The Empathy Factor, which promises to “restore humanity to the workplace” while “providing a competitive advantage for personal, team, and business success.”

Empathy is not a precursor to a politics of solidarity but a method for acquiring and maintaining power over others.

The turn to empathy is intimately linked with the decline of managerial culture in the 1980s and the ensuing crisis faced by business schools. No longer convinced that the “genteel tradition” of teaching managerial responsibility secured a competitive edge in a market dominated by investment banks, hedge funds, and management consultancies, students clamored for “financial formulas, mathematical models, and analytic tools,” according to a 1987 survey of the field in Fortune magazine. For most schools, however, the answer was not to embrace computational techniques or corporate finance wholeheartedly. Rather, according to Stanford professor James March, the very survival of management education depended on “deepen[ing] an intellectual understanding of the relationship between activities in business and the major issues of human existence.” Business schools, particularly elite ones, turned to the idea of grooming conscientious leaders instead of narrow-minded managers. At the same time, they turned to the narrative arts—the practice of “storytelling”—to help them chart this future anew.

It’s easy to see, then, why business schools continue to insist on fiction as the perfect tool for teaching empathy in the corporate world. The imaginative excursions into the minds of others, the invitation to identify with those who are not like us, the whole specter of make-believe—this emphasis on corporate humanism helps shore up the flailing business of management education at a moment when it is no longer necessary, not when the real money comes from starting your own hedge fund or designing a new social networking app. The “moral leader” is the perfect counterpoint to the figure of the finance drone or socially bumbling tech CEO, who responds so predictably to financial incentives that he retains no sense of individual personhood, no sense of right or wrong.

One can find the specifically corporate applications of empathy codified in any number of business school textbooks designed to accompany classes like “The Moral Leader.” There are Coles’s own publications, which include his short-story anthology Minding the Store: Great Writing About Business from Tolstoy to Now (2008), a collection of postwar fiction that the Wall Street Journal criticized for failing to contain stories “that make capitalism the hero rather than the villain of the piece.” More in line with the Journal’s politics are teaching guides like Sandra J. Sucher’s The Moral Leader: Challenges, Insights, Tools (2008) and Teaching the Moral Leader (2012); Joseph Badaracco Jr.’s Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature (2006); Robert Brawer’s Fictions of Business: Insights on Management from Great Literature; and Leigh Hafrey’s The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business (2005).

Sucher’s Teaching the Moral Leader is a fine example. It opens with a stern claim: “I do not take the development of leadership skills lightly.” The author’s C.V. bears equally eloquent testimony to her sense of mission: in addition to her tenure-track position at HBS, Sucher has served on corporate boards and has seen the way leaders can misunderstand the actions of one’s “subordinates”—that is, one’s employees. Students must learn how to take “a deep dive into the world of others” if they are to become effective leaders, particularly at a time of “increasing globalization, vast changes in the life sciences, and conflicting pressures from developing, emerging, and developed economies.”

Accordingly, Teaching the Moral Leader models how to read fiction to tease out the “strategies [that] are employed to build empathy for sometimes unsympathetic protagonists”: those employees who, despite their resistance to unpleasant leadership decisions like downsizing or workplace discrimination, must be made amenable to the leader’s exercise of power. In introducing her students to Machiavelli’s The Prince, the first book on her syllabus, Sucher notes, “This is a perfect place to start moral leadership, since leadership requires the use of power. This is about power—how to get it and preserve it, a necessary condition of leadership.”

For Sucher, empathy is a skill to be learned, a series of techniques that can be situationally deployed when an unpleasant “moral challenge” calls for it. It’s not a precursor to a politics of solidarity but a method for acquiring and maintaining power over others. Sucher cautions leaders not to think empathically or even to be empathic, but to take actions that appear as such to one’s employees. Hers is a ruthlessly pragmatic approach shared by nearly everyone who teaches the course, and it absolves these instructors from the burden of producing authentically empathic people—just one of the ways in which the course explicitly departs from Coles’s midcentury liberalism. “‘The Moral Leader’ does not guarantee moral leaders,” Sucher cautions at the outset of the book. In The Story of Success, MIT course director Leigh Hafrey sets forth the same dictum in terms the business elite can understand when he observes that removing “ethics from the realm of daily action may preserve our values, but it also makes them very hard to recall from their luxury status when we decide they are needed.” If ethics are a luxury good, what managers today need to discipline their employees are just-in-time action plans for feigning care.

Sucher and her colleagues are hardly the first to embrace the promise of empathic connection in the workplace. That idea has a long genealogy that links Sucher to such diversely objectionable figures as Elton Mayo, father of the human relations school of management theory, and Dale Carnegie, author of the 1936 bestselling self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. What is unique to reading in the business school, however, is how Sucher transforms fiction, rather than assembly lines or sales numbers, into a source of causal data. “Literature presents us with cause and effect, with action and result, and through the characters’ stories we can learn about the dangers, or rewards, of acting in certain ways,” she explains in an interview with HBS Working Knowledge. By pairing inputs (or actions) with outputs (or affects), students can figure out which actions to take based on the “tradeoffs between short-term costs and long-term (possibly very long-term) benefits.” The conversion of complex plot points into clear affective payoffs helps clarify to these “quick-witted businesses” how their actions can be moral—at least if morality and long-term profit are equated, which they are here.

Drink It All In

In Craven’s classroom, students are encouraged to bring six-packs and bottles of wine. Someone passes me a beer. Craven walks around the room making small talk as people slosh their drinks around. A student asks him where he gets his tattoos done. Craven promises he’ll tell him over email. Later, when I am accidentally cc’d on this email, I learn that his preferred spot for Cali ink is Red Hot Tattoo in Arcadia, California.

As Craven wanders to the other side of the room, the two men sitting next to me turn to each other and start comparing the labels on their designer jeans.

“I didn’t do the reading,” one confesses to the other.

“Oh, me neither,” the other says. “But did you go to the J.P. Morgan sell weekend?”

“Nah, I lied and said I couldn’t make it.”

“Well, are you coming out on the catamaran on Sunday?”

Over the next three weeks, Craven would ask me for feedback on how the class was run. What to say? To suggest that his students read Orwell or Dos Passos, Marx or Jameson, was simply unthinkable in the context of the business school. Likewise, it seemed uncharitable to contend that the whole exercise was ineffective—perhaps there would be something good to come of it, in some unknowable student’s life. It took me some time to realize how I’d been suckered in by Craven’s question. After all, there’s nothing managers love more than feedback; upward feedback, in particular, which preserves the illusion of equality and participatory management. One feels flattered just to be asked.

One answer to Craven’s request can be found in a conversation I had with a student whose name I never caught. We were sitting in the back of the classroom one night, packing up to leave, when he turned to me and whispered, “Can you put something in your notes for me?” I nodded. “I was a creative writing major in college and I hate this class,” he said.

“Why?” I whispered back.

“Because business school is the fucking worst,” he said, rolling his eyes. “And none of this makes it any less terrible.” He tipped his beer back and got up. He was wearing the whitest shoes I had ever seen and, feeling a wave of empathy, I watched them as he sprinted all the way across the classroom and out the door.