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Why Study Literature?

Thursday in one of my Introduction to Literature courses, one of my students said, "Ma'am,

I have a question. No disrespect, but...."

We all know the feeling that comes with any question or remark that begins that way. I
thought, "Oh boy. Here it comes."

"...Why do we need to learn this? Is my commander going to send me a poem and ask me
to explicate it?"

This question always flummoxes me--not because I have no answer, but because the
answers are so obvious to me yet so myriad that I don't know where to begin to answer. I
considered actually assigning him some research on the subject for his first journal, or
perhaps incorporating this in my classes next semester as a beginning essay: why is the
close study of literature so important and enduring? (Indeed, I may still do this.) Then it
occurred to me that if there are so many answers and they are so obvious to me, perhaps I
should list them myself and use them as a Why Study Literature? Reason Of The Day. While
I love all the [fill in the blank] Of The Day ideas I've heard of and seen in action (word of
the day, poem of the day, quote of the day), I can think of none that my classes need more
than ongoing reasons to study literature.

Here's my initial list. You'll find some overlap here and there, but each outcome, I think, is
unique. I'd like your thoughts on the list, additions to it, and expansions on ideas already
listed, please.

1. To benefit from the insight of others. The body of world literature contains most
available knowledge about humanity--our beliefs, our self-perception, our philosophies, our
assumptions and our interactions with the world at large. Some of life's most important
lessons are subtly expressed in our art. We learn these lessons only if we pause to think
about what we read. Why would anyone bury important ideas? Because some ideas cannot
be expressed adequately in simple language, and because the lessons we have to work for
are the ones that stick with us.

2. To open our minds to ambiguities of meaning. While people will "say what they
mean and mean what they say" in an ideal world, language in our world is, in reality,
maddeningly and delightfully ambiguous. If you go through life expecting people to play by
your rules, you'll only be miserable, angry and disappointed. You won't change them.
Ambiguity, double entendres and nuance give our language depth and endless possibility.
Learn it. Appreciate it. Revel in it.

3. To explore other cultures and beliefs. History, anthropology and religious studies
provide a method of learning about the cultures and beliefs of others from the outside
looking in. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to experience the cultures and beliefs
of others first-hand, from the inside looking out. The only other way to have such a personal
understanding of others' beliefs are to adopt them yourself--which most of us aren't willing
to do. If you understand where other people are coming from, you are better equipped to
communicate meaningfully with them--and they with you.

4. To appreciate why individuals are the way they are. Each person we meet
represents a unique concoction of knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. In our own culture
we find an infinite variety of attitudes and personalities, hatreds and bigotries, and
assumptions. With each exposure to those who differ from us, we expand our minds. We
may still reject their beliefs and assumptions, but we're one step closer to understanding

5. To expand our grasp of the machinations of history. History and literature are
inextricably entertwined. History is not just names and dates and politics and wars and
power. History is about people who were products of their time with their own intricately-
woven value systems. Study of literature enhances our appreciation of history's complexity,
which in turn expands our appreciation of present political complexities and better equips us
to predict and prepare for the future.

6. To exercise our brains. Our brains need exercise just like our bodies do. Don't balk at
picking up the barbell and doing a few mental curls. Great literature has hidden meanings
that won't slap us in the face like childrens' books will; we'll have to dig and analyze like an
adult to find the gold.

7. To teach us to see individual bias. In a sense, each of us is an unreliable or naive
narrator, but most of us mindlessly accept the stories of certain friends or family without
qualification. We should remember that they are centers of their own universes, though,
just like we are. They are first-person narrators--not omniscient--just like we are. The only
thing that suffers when we appreciate individual bias is our own gullibility.

8. To encourage us to question "accepted" knowledge. As children, most of us were
taught to believe what we're told and those basic hypotheses provide our schemas, or
building blocks of knowledge. As we grow, we learn to question some ideas while rejecting
the offensively alien ideas outright, often without real examination. However, human
progress often results from the rejection of assumed "facts." The difficulty lies in spotting
our own unexamined assumptions. The more ideas we expose yourself to, the more of our
own assumptions we can root out to question and either discard or ground our lives in.

9. To help us see ourselves as others do. Literature is a tool of self-examination. You
will see your own personality or habits or assumptions in literature. The experience may
even be painful. While our ego defense systems help us avoid self-scrutiny and ignore
others' observations or reactions to us, literature serves as a mirror, revealing us to
ourselves in all our naked, undefended glory.

10. To appreciate the contributions literature has made to history. The pen is
mightier than the sword, yes? When a country undergoes regime change, the new regime
imprisons, exiles or executes the intelligentsia--scholars and philosophers--who are seen as
the keepers of the culture, creators of ideology, and instigators of revolt. See Russian,
Chinese, and German history for examples. In American history, see the copious examples
of pro- and anti-slavery literature as well as Thomas Paine's and Thomas Jefferson's
contributions to the American Revolution.

11. To see the tragedy. Lenin said "A million deaths are a statistic, but one death is a
tragedy." History gives you the statistics. Literature shows you the human tragedy.

12. To further our mastery of language. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but
words build and destroy nations. Study of literature hones our language skills and teaches
us new and valuable techniques for communication. A master of language can seduce your
emotions and inspire you to follow him into death--or he can crush your will with a word.
Language is the single most important tool of leadership and great leaders embrace its

13. To recognize language devices and appreciate their emotional power. Like good
music, poetry uses wordplay, rhythm, and sounds to lull the reader into an emotional fog,
and therein deliver its message. Great leaders learn to harness these techniques of
communication and persuasion. Listen closely to effective advertisements and politicians
and lawyers. Listen to the pleasing rhythm and wordplay of their mantras, and watch the
sheep blithely flock to them: "It does not fit--you must aquit!" "Crisp and clean and no
caffeine!" Politicians use prolific parallelism: "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will
not fail."

14. To explore ethical complexities. Only children find ethical rules cut and dried.
Literature forces readers to challenge their simplistic ethical conceptions and sometimes
their outright condemnation of others' actions. For example, we believe lying is wrong. But
what do we mean? Do we never lie? Have you ever met a person rude enough to follow this
rule implicitly? Be advised, though: ethical exploration is a mature endeavor; it is not for
the thin-skinned.

15. To see the admirable in everyday life. We are surrounded by unsung nobility and
sacrifice. Once we learn to see it in the actions of common folk, our lives will be forever
richer, as will our faith in humanity itself.

16. To learn better ways to behave. An untold amount of our opinions and words and
reactions are absorbed during childhood and from our culture. Literature teaches us better
courses of action and more effective responses to situations...if we let it.

17. To know we aren't alone. Others have been where we are, have felt as we feel, have
believed as we believe. Paradoxically, we are unique just like everyone else. But we aren't
alone. Others were here and they survived...and may have even learned from it--and so
may we.

18. To refine our judgment. This involves several aspects of reading: exposure to new
ideas and new ways of looking at old assumptions, expanded vocabulary and understanding,
and improved ability to write. Altogether, these benefits refine our ability to think, and thus
guide us toward informed, mature judgment.

19. To learn to support our points of view and trust our own interpretations. We
provide evidence for our interpretation of a story or poem when we explicate it. When we
build a solid case in support of our opinion, we build self-confidence in our own
interpretations of language itself.

20. To develop empathy for those who are unlike us. Literature can train and exercise
our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours. As children, our circles of concern stop
with ourselves. As we grow, we expand those circles to our families and friends,
and perhaps to our neighborhoods, towns, cities, states or countries. Our study of literature
continues to expand that realm of concern beyond the things we physically experience.

21. To expand our vocabularies. New words are tools for grasping new ideas. Each new
idea is a building block upon which we may acquire more knowledge. Knowledge is power.

The Importance of Literature in Business
by Nancy Wagner, Demand Media

A colorful brochure comes in handy for marketing your business on- and offline.
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In todays high-tech, Internet-based world, printed literature may seem boring and old-fashioned. But there are
plenty of reasons to rely on print material to grab and hold a prospective buyers attention, especially if your ideal
buyer relies on the printed word to find products or services. Sometimes it simply comes down to the fact that a
printed piece is easier to provide than any other form of communication.
Educate and Impress
Producing marketing materials is a great way to introduce new products or services, especially when you need
plenty of space to describe the latest offerings. Business literature also comes in handy for sharing information with
your target market about the features and benefits of your products or services. Plus, literature with an eye-catching
design helps certain types of businesses, such as advertising and marketing firms, show off their capability to
provide creative services.
Target Market Needs
Printed literature works well to target individuals who dont rely on the Internet or mobile technology to research
products and services. But you must know the demographics of your target market, such as what types of
information they use to make purchasing decisions. Find out how they get advertising and marketing information,
such as by mail, by attending trade shows or by grabbing brochures from racks at local businesses. Creating multiple
brochures, each covering a specific product or service line, or using interchangeable inserts, are other ways to
customize the literature for each market.
Related Reading: The Importance of Professionalism in Business
Build a Following
Many of your prospective buyers won't know about your online presence unless you send them flyers or postcards to
alert them to this fact. Use literature to invite people to your website and social-networking sites to build a
following. This helps you convince them, over numerous postings, to become customers. Use literature to whet
prospects' appetite for more information and to alert them to the fact that they dont have to wait for your store to
open to make a purchase -- they can head to your e-commerce website and buy at any time of the day.
Easy to Use
Business literature comes in handy at trade shows when you want to give prospective buyers something to take
home with them to read after the shows end. Handing out a tri-fold brochure or a colorful postcard at a networking
event when you meet someone who may want to buy your products or services is another easy way to use literature.
Provide piles of brochures to businesses that cater to the same audience as you do to get in front of more prospective
buyers. Put your literature on vendor tables at conventions, conferences and sponsored events to attract even more
References (3)
About the Author
Nancy Wagner is a marketing strategist and speaker who started writing in 1998. She writes business plans for
startups and established companies and teaches marketing and promotional tactics at local workshops. Wagner's
business and marketing articles have appeared in "Home Business Journal," "Nations Business," "Emerging
Business" and "The Mortgage Press," among others. She holds a B.S. from Eastern Illinois University.

Why should literature be studied?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people. But the answer may lie
in the past, for literature, in a way, is older than recorded history.

People began telling stories long, long ago for two main reasons: a) to explain the
things that they cannot truly understand and b) to teach. Early oral mythologies were a
way to explain the horrors and the glories of nature and to teach people how they
should act and react within their world.
Literature today still does these things. By studying literature, we can better
understand those things that aren't easily understood: pain, hatred, love, death, war,
sacrifice, human nature, and even truth. Sure, literature may not reveal cold, hard facts
about the world around us, but, like the thousands of little chips that eventually
transformed a block of marble into Michelangelo's statue of David, each little nugget of
understanding that we gain from literature gives us a clearer vision of ourselves and
those around us.
In short, by studying literature, we learn what it means to be human.
Studying literature also teaches us about how powerful language can be. A word is
more than just its definition. Word choice can imply much more information than simply
what is being said. How something is said or written can reveal hatred, jubilance,
dissatisfaction, indifference, passion, sorrow, deceit, disbelief, and so on, even while, on
the surface, only transmitting the most mundane information. By studying the use of
language in literature, you learn how to use the subtleties of the language to your

Why Our Students Study Literature
"Creative writing has been a happy part of my life since I first learned to hold a pencil, so once I chose
Gustavus, I considered my career as an English major a given. Perhaps I am a rare bird for that, being so
sure of myself so soon. But I could not have anticipated how much I learned about the value of reading, in
every area of life, through the English major; nor did I see its potential to shape me as a writer. No matter
how straight-forward a story may seem, the search for something deeper within it leads to all kinds of
insights that, while perhaps not in line with the author's original intent (who knows?), teach you more
about the world and the different ways people use language. The theory taught alongside literature, in
combination with this analysis, gives you the power of perspective that is so essential to finding
contentment and peace in communication with people who are different from you, in a way that is unique
to the study of literature. To write you have to read, and to really read, you have to think, criticize, doubt,
wonder, and stand amazed by words on the page. The English major showed me how to do that, and not
only has it increased my skills as a writer, it has made me a more compassionate and honest person."
Caitlin Skvorc
"I study literature because I believe there is power in stories. Literature is both intensely personal as well
as a communal experience. I love examining how words, sentences, characters, plot-lines and tropes
reveal who we are as humans. Humanity is a complicated thing, and requires an infinite amount of words
to describe and analyze. That's the joy of studying literature, there is always a new reality to discover."
Mikaela Warner
"For me, the decision to study literature has been a struggle. Since I was young, I always enjoyed
reading and being read to, but I always considered the actual study of literature to be made up; seriously,
poets dont actually try to "invoke" some other work. Literary devices? Some make-believe stuff that
people invented to make English seemscientific. Although I enjoyed it, literature, to me, was studied only
by those who werent smart enough to study something real, something provable.
As I understand it, those feelings are not uncommon. The difference for me, though (as compared to
some other people I know), is that I grew out of them. I started really looking at rhetorical devices, and
the use of language. I started to see that, although it still was not science, it was art, and art is the
greatest expression of that which is human."
David Lick
"As far as my own goals in literature, they are quite simple. Admittedly, part of my fascination is for great
ammunition for cocktail parties. There is a very attractive element to being able to talk about literature
great characters, famous storiesthat I think attracts most people to literature. And it is a good feeling to
know a lot about it.
However, that is not my greatest concern. Most of all, my goal is to learn as much as I can about the
human condition, and what it really means to be human, in all aspects."
David Lick
"By studying literature I find that this sense of confusion and search for self-discovery is a common
theme. I am confident that my choice to be an English major is one that I will be satisfied with. Thus far,
in my opinion, to be an English major entails more than just being able to read and write well. An English
major must also strive to understand and interpret the importance that various forms of literature have
had on the society of the past and the present. Being able to express opinions is another important
aspect, as is starting a piece of literature with an open mind. These habits are also important when facing
everyday life, not just literature.
The chance to read and write is something that everyone should be able to experience. Literature in all
forms is everywhere in todays society, and with this idea, it is clear just how important it is. Whether it is
studied in the classroom, read for pleasure or purpose, literature is a central part of many lives. It offers
not only a chance to enlighten a person, but it also gives the chance to broaden ones horizons and
perspectives. In my case, having the opportunity to study literature in two different languages has helped
me to find similarities in two different cultures, and to also find that although literature varies in form and
content, it is important and it is a central part of many lives."
Stephanie Conroy
"Reading and writing, the basic principles involved in the study of English, serve as the gateway to a
deeper level of thought. After mastering these elementary skills, comprehension, analysis, and
interpretation are learned and used to better educate ones self. Studying literature and observing
personal reactions to the literature can make one more aware of his or her own values. English skills are
helpful in every area of life. Reading, writing, comprehension, analysis, and interpretation increase
efficiency in multiple ways including communication, documentation in other areas of study, and reflection
of personal values. I believe there is no area of study that English and communication skills do not
Maria Freund
"Reading and writing, in general, are undoubtedly some of the most valuable skills one can have;
obviously, having these skills makes is much easier for people to communicate and to participate in
society. However, there exists a purpose for reading and writing outside of these immediate practical
purposes; the written word can be used to enlighten, to persuade, to express emotion, or simply for
enjoyment. In these forms the written word becomes an art form, and a way of reaching out to others
through a personal experience between the writer and the reader. Reading is an excellent way to
associate oneself with the great minds of history and peer into their own thoughts. Reading is surely one
of the most effective ways one can expand oneself."
Matt Beachey
"Literature is a way in which we can capture and interpret what has happened and is happening to us
personally and to the world as a whole. An entire culture exists in the written word, documenting the
collective thoughts of everyone who cared to share them with the world. Therefore, I believe that for one
to truly be a part of human society, it is critical that one take part in the evolution and self-realization that
is literature, even if only in the reading aspect. Writing, however, carries a grave importance, as literature
simply would not exist in the accessible form it does without written word, and for that reason I believe all
who can write should. One should take advantage of the great opportunity to be part of and contribute to
the world and society in which he or she lives through writing. I see literature in the societal sense a
collective struggle to understand and make the best of the lives that we have all been given. Literature
serves as a way to enrich our minds, and presents a way to improve the world not only through the
beauty of its presence but through the ideas and tangible possibilities it possesses."
Matt Beachey
"The best of my English teachers taught us literature because they wanted the art of it to expand our
minds and help teach us new ways of seeing the world. I was taught to both see a work of literature as a
way to understand the time it was written, and the people who produced it, and to find the parts of that
work that spoke to me in my time and place. While I am skeptical about whether or not anyone can ever
really understand a culture or a time prior to their own, I do know that many times literature and art
provide insights that cold hard facts do not. Most of all I find that literature makes the differences more
manageable, and highlights the similarities between people. I can read a Greek tragedy two thousand
years later and agree with things that some older white man was saying because he was a human being,
and I am a human being. Although it may sound trite, I have had reading experiences that taught me
more about what it means to live in this world."
Sybylla Yeoman Hendrix
"Not everyone loves reading enough to do it in their spare time, but the people who do are the ones who
get the most benefit out of what they read, because they want to be there in that world that literature
creates. I have met very intelligent people who do not read. But all of the interesting people I know read,
whether or not they are particularly intelligent."
Sybylla Yeoman Hendrix
"I read literature for a number of different reasons. Literature is an art full of passion and heart; it
transcends the ages. Great literature hits on many different levels. Over the years authors have
accomplished unfeasible tasks through the use of their words. Literature has prompted political and
social change in societies and continues to do so to this day. It can be a battle cry for the proletariat to
rise up and make a difference, and it can also provide personal counsel.
Literature sets me free from the responsibilities of this world, and at the same time it ties me down to
those same responsibilities. Some literature I read for an escape; to journey to a far away land and go on
a grand adventure with creatures beyond my imagination. Other literature has much more serious
subject matter, and I read it to remind myself that life isnt all cupcakes and ice cream."
Ryan McGinty
"To me, literature is about the obsession with ideas. We read literature to discover and to learn about
ideas and we write it to discover and to cultivate our own ideas. No lover-of-ideas can go without either
reading or writing. For me, if I go too long without one or the other, I get this huge build up of confused
and jumbled ideas that suddenly overcome me and I just have to write them out in some form
(philosophic prose, narrative, poetry, scribbled phrases, etc.). That must be why literature can appear in a
multitude of forms: be it poetry or prose, the sonnet or the novel, the sestina or the short story, etc. All
literature shares the common theme of the idea. Ideas explore, probe, inquire, and inspire. The reactions
to such are all that become a part of the learning process. There is a great deal that literature can teach.
Literature can teach to the individual and to all of society. It can teach us about the past and the present
and even about the future. Subjects can be broad and far-reaching, but can also be specific. Literature
teaches us about laughter and love, about remembering and forgetting. It can create emotion and warn
us against our many human faults. It can attempt to disprove other ideas or attempt to find truth. I think
we are all looking to find truth in some form or another. Oftentimes, the uncertainty of a specific meaning
of a piece allows for its interpretation to be for the reader to decide. What is certain, however, is that there
are things to be learned from literature that are specific to it, that cannot be attained through any other
medium. To gather this knowledge and to experience its beauty all pertain to the importance of literature
to me."
Abby Travis
"Another reason that I enjoy reading so much is the places you can go to when you read. I know that that
sounds pretty corny, like something on a PBS commercial, but I feel that there are a vast amount of
experiences and people the reader gets to encounter in any work of literature."
Stefan Kolis
"When I pick up a fantasy novel and fly through it in an hour, I do it for enjoyment, pure and simple. But I
read things like The Grapes of Wrath or Heart of Darkness because they are more than just a moments
diversion. What they contain that dime novels do not is a window into the things that make human beings
tick, the methods behind our madness, so to speak. I go through life experiencing different situations and
learning from them, but not always being able to put into words exactly what I have learned. I read
literature because its function, as I define it, is to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. Not only
is the uncovering of these truths significant in and of itself, but the revelation process also provides a
common experience through which the reader can relate to every person who has discovered that same
truth before him.
One way that literature communicates the human condition to readers is that it brings the truths it
contains to life."
Rebekah Schulz
"Although I concede that it is not absolutely necessary to major in English in order to gain perspective
from literature, I feel that English is a good lens through which to view the world, both present and past.
When I study a great work of literature, I not only gain insight into the universal truth about which the
author has chosen to write, but I also, in my attempts to understand, can learn about the culture in which
the author lived, the history surrounding the country of his origin, and the various intellectual, political, and
artistic movements of the time. Thus the window to humanity that lies at the heart of all literature can act
as a sort of connecting portal to the culture surrounding each individual author. The reader stands on the
common ground of the universal truth around which a work is constructed the point at which the
readers world and the authors meet and begins to understand some of the motivations behind the
authors own quest for truth.
Once someone has become more experienced in the ways of the world, or in the ways of literature, it falls
upon that person to begin to light the way for future explorers. Some may write literary works of their
own, using words to illuminate their views on the truth about humanity. Others may decide instead to act
as teachers, helping prospective explorers learn to traverse the dense and sometimes bewildering forest
of novels they will encounter along their journey. No matter the manner in which people choose to serve,
the task itself remains as timeless as the truths that humans have sought for centuries: As the great
thinkers and authors of the past have marked out paths in the wilderness for we who have followed them,
so we must serve as guides for those who will come after us.
Great literature provides its readers with a window into various aspects of the human condition and a
guide to the way we, as a species, relate to one another and to our surroundings. Literature gives us a
mirror in which to examine our collective reflection as a people. It does not gloss over the pimples and
blemishes of humanity, but exposes them quite openly. No concealer, no cover-up, only the truth.
Literature is the reflecting pool into which every person that ever existed can look and see both his own
face and the faces of all his fellow people. It enables each human to not only find the humanity within his
own heart, but also to connect him to the generations of other people who have been doing so since the
beginning of time."
Rebekah Schulz

What can literature teach us about doing
business better?
Literature may not have the answers to the challenges of
sustainability or economic crises but it can bring a fresh
perspective, especially when it comes to people matters

In academia, literature and the humanities find themselves under threat. They need to fight
constantly to stay alive by demonstrating their value and impact. When it comes to establishing a link
between literature and business, the relevance of the humanities seems even more tenuous.
Arguably, literature and the humanities have a lot to say about the world of business and the world in
general. Ask most business leaders what keeps them up at night, and the answer will rarely be
issues of process, technology or numbers although all of that is certainly complicated and
challenging. Rather, what leaders struggle with usually comes down to the people stuff. And by that
they mean the complex and often contradictory nature of human beings.
No matter what processes, policies and structures businesses put in place, people remain
complicated and unpredictable: we don't always get along; we have very diverse motivations; we find
change painful and difficult; we don't always behave "rationally"; and we don't always do the right
thing, even when we have every reason to do so. Much great literature captures this acutely and
provides us with texts that challenge and lay bare the simplistic ways we can so easily go wrong
when we think about it.
Insights from literature and the humanities are particularly valuable when trying to understand
behaviour that doesn't seem to make sense in a classic economic analysis. Examples of people
being confusing in the world of business abound, whether dealing with colleagues, partners or
Traditional business tools and approaches aren't always helpful when trying to understand and talk
about human behaviour and motivation because these things are somewhat messy. Yet human
behaviour sits at the core of many of the biggest issues faced by businesses today the challenges
of sustainability, the economic crisis, or the shifting balance of global power, to name a few. You
won't find answers to these questions in sonnets or novels or essays on literary criticism. That is
where the impact lobby go wrong. But you may well find fresh approaches to the questions.
Most businesses today find themselves in what feels like a perpetual state of change. If they seek
out any expertise to manage through this, it is usually from disciplines like 'change management' or
'process re-engineering'. While these fields certainly have their merits and are necessary fixtures of
the corporate world, they often fall short of providing satisfactory solutions, reducing people to
'stakeholders' or cogs in a machine.

Ovid's Metamorphoses
Literature and the humanities can open up another perspective for us. For example, reading Hamlet
can enlighten on the complexity of decisiveness in business [video, 6min]. And when it comes to
understanding what change is like, what do we learn by reading Ovid's Metamorphoses?
Reading Ovid still less, scholarship about Ovid is scarcely likely to turn you instantly into a
business 'change agent'. But no poem gets closer to the savage truth of transformation than Ovid's
masterpiece. Reading it reminds us that inside the shiny exterior of every new thing is the pathos of
the thing transformed, history locked inside modernity, whether we like it or not. Time and again,
businesses forget this at their peril.
The masterful poetry of the Metamorphoses edited by scholars, translated by poets, debated and
decoded by critics resonates in every line with the power of language, that tool we use with such
careless brutality as we drive change. In every episode of the Metamorphoses, there is more insight
than in dozens of manuals and business bibles. Business leaders would do well to pay it some
All this may sound like I'm a critic of the change processes that happen within business. On the
contrary. Like many people in the business world, I spend a great deal of my time helping to guide
and orchestrate change. If we are going to make businesses more sustainable economically,
socially, ethically transformation is necessary. The so-called scientific textbooks and the how-to
guides have their place in this regard. But in the end, the real problems the problems of the people
that are affected by change, their feelings, their motivations, their conflicts, the way business
language brutalises as much as it inspires them cannot be reduced to simple formulae. Where
people are concerned, formulae seldom work.
As a way of approaching complex reflection, nothing beats the fragility, the openness, and the
contradictory nature of the literary text.
A more sustainable business is surely a more human business. If we continue to ignore human
complexity, and human motivations beyond profit, eventually people will turn their backs on
commerce. It is already starting to happen.

Sophocles' Antigone
When we read Sophocles' Antigone for instance, we are forced to see different points of view and to
hold separate, even contradictory, positions in our mind simultaneously. In this classic battle of wills,
the confrontation between conscience and power, we cannot resort to oversimplifications. The
language won't let us. Nor will the centuries of tradition of scholarship that have kept the Antigone
debates burning. And that is why in those ancient verses, we may not find answers, but perhaps a
better way to remember how complex the question is.
How does all this come to life in practice? This is no easy task. I have lent the major portion of my
professional life to the struggle to find ways to do justice to both human complexity and the need for
profit; to the importance of asking better and more rounded questions and the need to feed
continually the inexorable and understandable appetite that businesses have for answers.
The task may seem impossible, quixotic even. But the alternative is worse. We need business to
flourish. And if we want it to be better and more sustainable, we had better engage properly with it
and help it engage properly with us. That is why we need to ensure that we turn our thinking upside
down. Let us stop trying to turn thinking in the humanities into something more like business with our
talk of impact and quick results. Let us start to think about what business can learn from the
Maurice Biriotti is founder and chief executive of SHM

Leadership in Literature
It used to be that MBA students went to business school to learn about the practice of management. Most
had undergraduate degrees in the arts and sciences. But thats no longer the case. A growing proportion
of students attending business schools today majored in business as undergraduatesor they came to
business school with five or six years of experience in investment banking or management consulting.
Business students nowadays are not, for the most part, poets. They are people very familiar with
Of course, in many ways this experience gives students a head start in their MBA course work. They
come in knowing basic accounting; they understand discounted cash flow and regression analysis. But, if
you think about it, the very fact that they already are so familiar with the content of the traditional MBA
program suggests that MBA students perhaps need a little less in the way of quantitative tools and a little
more in the way of good judgment and self-knowledge, as well as a deeper understanding of human
Its not surprising that a number of scholars and businesspeople have begun to question the direction of
business education. Last year in these pages, for example, leadership gurus Warren G. Bennis and
James OToole argued that business schools have lost their way because of the scientific model that
dominates business research and teaching. (See How Business Schools Lost Their Way, May 2005.)
Business academics are promoted based on the mathematical rigor of their research rather than on the
relevance of it. What students get in class, therefore, are highly trained academics steeped in
mathematics who are teaching formalized management tools. These tools work well enough if youre
studying techniques for financial valuation, but they are less useful when youre studying leadership and
organizational behavior. Students could learn a lot more about these subjects, Bennis and OToole
argued, if they took a course in literature. Fiction can be as instructive about leadership and
organizational behavior as any business textbook.
For the past decade, Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard
Business School, has been offering just that kind of course to the schools MBA students. In recent years,
he has also led discussions about serious literary fiction with executives at HBS. Badaracco uses
literature to provide his students with well-rounded, complex pictures of leaders in all walks of life
leaders whose challenges, particularly psychological and emotional ones, parallel those of senior
executives. In his classes, Badaracco uses texts such as Arthur Millers Death of a
Salesman, Sophocless Antigone, and Joseph Conrads The Secret Sharer to help students understand
questions of leadership, decision making, and moral judgment. Badaracco also examines these issues in
his forthcoming book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through
Literature (Harvard Business School Press, April 2006).
Recently, HBR senior editor Diane Coutu met with Badaracco for a wide-ranging discussion of what
leaders can learn from literature. Their three-hour conversation led to some surprising insights into the
many challenges of leadership.
What made you decide to teach literature to executives?
It was a gamble. I was teaching a class on leadership, and I asked a group of very senior executives to
read a short story by Joseph Conrad called The Secret Sharer. I had no idea whether the experiment
would work. In my experience, I have found that many businesspeople associate literary discussions with
abstruse academic talk and Freudian imagery. But this wasnt a class in literary criticism, and I wasnt
looking for the right interpretation. I wanted to use the story as a case study.
Of course, literature is more subjective and open-ended than the typical case studies we do at Harvard,
which are fact based, highly researched, and focused on particular issues. But it actually provides us with
some of the most powerful and engaging case studies ever written. Serious fiction that has survived the
test of time raises more questions than it answers. Think of ShakespearesJulius Caesar. You could learn
as much about leadership from that play as you would from reading any business book or academic
journal. Its lessons are certainly no less valuable and probably just as pragmatic.
The Secret Sharer is a good example of a work of literature that really resonates with executives. The
story centers on a new captain who briefly conceals a killer on his ship. This decision violates the law of
the sea, but the captain believes that the man is falsely accused. After some heated discussion in our
class, most of the senior executives acknowledged that when they looked back on their careers, they had
faced decisions that were pretty similar to the captains. It may well be that part of becoming a leader
involves learning to grapple with very hard trade-offs and almost reckless testing of your limits, and The
Secret Sharer gave these senior executives a way of talking about those limits.
Is there a particular theme in The Secret Sharer that resonates with senior executives?
The premise of this short story, as I see it, is that leaders are not given responsibility, so they must take
itmany times emotionally, aggressively, and even forcefully. Often, this is the situation managers face
when they are given promotions and new challengesin business we call them opportunities. In
assuming these new roles, managers have to confront their ability or inability to stare reality in the face,
their fears of taking on new responsibilities, and, sometimes, their reluctance to be held personally
accountable. Do leaders have the inner resources, the direction, the pragmatism, and the force of will to
assume these challenges? If not, whats missing?
Simple answers to these questions dont help us much. Thats what makes The Secret Sharer so
compelling. Conrads short story is all about questions of character and choice. Early on, the captain
faces a choice: Should he let the stranger on board or not? Later, he faces the choice of forcing him off
the ship. How does the captain handle his first choice? On the whole, not very well. He responds simply
as a human being, feeling empathy for the stranger, liking him, and trusting him.
These days, when there is so much emphasis on empathy and emotional intelligence, this story
gives a nontraditional view of leadership.
Empathy is a decent, even noble, impulse of the captain, but his role brings other obligations. He needs
to safeguard the shipbut there is no sign that this duty passed through the captains mind. Had the
captain made the same decision after struggling to determine what was right, we might have more
confidence in his choice. But he doesnt. We can give him credit for empathy, but he seems to have
forgotten his new role as the ships captain when he fails to consider his other responsibilities and the
practical consequences of taking on and concealing a stowaway.
As the captain eventually recognizes, empathy is good, but it cannot replace confrontation with the darker
sides of ones own self. Conradwho, by the way, spent 20 years at seasuggests that taking
responsibility means coming to grips with your secret side, your shadow side, your reflective side. There
are a lot of unexplored selves that you have to integrate before you can become a leader. This doesnt
transform you from Clark Kent into Superman. But in the process of taking responsibility, the captain does
learn to observe and develop himself. He accomplishes this not simply by practicing navigation skills or
studying maps but through self-observation and steady, patient steps toward self-mastery.
Why should taking responsibility be an aggressive act?
Conrad does not mince his words. Taking responsibility is a really hard thing to do. The world is a
recalcitrant place. Other people will resist you; there are certain risks. Sometimes leaders have to take
responsibility by acting directly and forcefully. At the end of the story, when the ships mate refuses to
follow an order, the captain actually shakes the guy into following his command. He doesnt hit him, but
he physically makes the sailor execute the order.