Classic Literature Applied to Business Decisions

Looking for a good book on how leaders make decisions? Don’t just scan the business section of your local bookstore. Look in the literature aisle too. Yes, the novels you were required to read in high school can teach business lessons as well. That’s what Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco said in his book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature. Find out what he means and how it can help small business owners make better decisions.

What Does This Stuff Have to Do with Decision Making?

The idea is that classic literature gives us an opportunity to look at decision making in action. Through the story, you get to see more than just how it ends. You get to experience the plot twists and turns that lead to the decision.

Badaracco gave an example in an interview for the National Center for Middle Market.

He commented on how Sir Thomas Moore makes a decision in the play, Man for all Seasons.

“You see [Moore] balancing the safety of his family and his conscious, but in a more complex way,” Badaracco said. “What do you do when the world is complicated and there are several ‘right’ things?”

The story teaches business leaders about choosing between competing priorities to arrive at a decision. In this case, the balancing factor was the character’s ethical standards.

Why It Works

Badaracco thinks that business leaders make decisions using two different but complementary viewpoints. The first is by the numbers. Leaders know how to analyze the data in a spreadsheet or tweak a process so they get can increase production. They use the power of numbers to make a decision.

The second perspective is about what’s happening inside the head of managers. What thoughts and feelings influence their decision? They also use their emotional intelligence to make a decision.

“Literature helps identify the really complicated issues and the stakes on all sides,” Badaracco said. “Grappling with these issues through fiction is good practice for grappling with them in business.”

For More Information

Business leaders make better decisions when they look at things by the numbers they see and the feelings they experience. Classic literature can help small business owners practice those skills. Here’s a list of books that Badaracco recommends.

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