Grassroots Commentary

Read Fiction to Learn Business

Bill Franklin · Nov. 18, 2013

When I was studying engineering in college, our mathematics courses were taught by the mathematics department located on a next door campus in the university’s liberal arts college. Dutifully we schlepped to the math classroom several times a week to endure hours of mind-numbing blackboard lectures displaying various mathematical pyrotechnics that the professor manipulated to produce an “answer,” never sure why an answer was important in the first place.

It turned out that the mathematics professors weren’t sure why an answer was important either. As we got into the complexities of real engineering problems in fluid mechanics, kinematics, and electromagnetics, the vapor of calculus, differential equations, and vector analysis had long since blown away, and the mathematics had to be retaught in the context of real problems that couldn’t be solved unless certain mathematical tools were employed.

As an adult the futility of acquiring knowledge in a vacuum was driven home when I tried to teach my children how to tell time. “What time is it when the big hand is here and the little hand is there?” In fact, they learned to tell time when they went out to play with friends, watches strapped to their wrists, and were told to be home not later than 6:15 p.m. for dinner – or else. Like mathematics, learning to tell time succeeds as applied knowledge.

These two experiences came to mind as I’ve read a spate of reports in recent months bemoaning the decline of humanities – literature, poetry, and social sciences – as more students and college resources shift to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. One op-ed critic this past summer essentially declared good riddance; “literature has been turned into a bland, soulless competition for grades and status.”

As a former university professor of business, my two cents worth is that literature, a relatively recent addition in college curricula, is studied as a contextless subject, not unlike the way I learned mathematics (badly at first) or attempted to teach time-telling to my children. There once was a time when all education was taught under the rubric of philosophy – i.e. as an integrated whole. That, after all, is the way the world’s knowledge exists. Then some education genius came along and said, “Hey, how about we split this up into separate courses of study, say, mathematics, science, history, literature, and …” Well, you get the point. But the world’s knowledge isn’t split up into disciplines as it’s taught today. It’s still an integrated whole.

One of our companies is studying literary fiction and plays in a way I think gives literature a sensible place at the table. Their goal is to gain a greater understanding of themselves and others as human beings and to learn how people in literature struggle with complex problems. The literary fiction they are studying is not the popular genre of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Frederick Forsyth whose flat characters are formulaic and whose predictable plots are designed to carry readers on exciting journeys that whipsaw their emotions. Popular fiction is entertainment. Literary fiction draws the reader to struggle with the characters in their dilemmas and to teach moral lessons.

How could fiction be the basis for a serious study of human behavior? How could fictional predicaments equip everyone in the company I’ve mentioned to deliver a better customer experience – their ultimate aim? Because a make-believe story about make-believe people in a make-believe place is not make-believe. The reader’s suspension of disbelief (a term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) causes a story and its characters to become real. It allows readers to participate vicariously in the choices fictional characters make without suffering the consequences they suffer in the story. Notwithstanding the popular aphorism, reading fiction is gain without pain.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s award-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, was recently read by our company and discussed as a case study in loyalty. Loyalty is normally a virtue sought in organizations. But Ishiguro’s principal character, Stevens, takes it to a fanatical extreme. As an English butler serving Lord Darlington, he never questions what he’s told to do, among which was to fire two of Darlington Hall’s Jewish maids during World War II, essentially a death sentence since without jobs they were likely deported to Germany.

Stevens’ job as the loyal head of Lord Darlington’s household consumed so much of him that he had no emotional reserve to understand and return the affection of Miss Kenton, the house keeper of Darlington Hall. Near the end of his career, if not his life, Stevens realizes he has misspent his life and in “the remains of the day” will die in lonely remorse.

The novel, which went on to become a film with eight Academy Award nominations, is a warning to every busy executive who is “married” to his job and has nothing left for his family.

Our company also studied Antigone, the 2,500-year old play by Sophocles, which pits two characters, Antigone and King Creon, against each other as they take unrelenting stands on their principle. Both are inflexible ideologues who spurn the counsel of those with opposing views, and this leads Antigone and Creon to a predictable and tragic end. The occupant of the White House would have done well to read Antigone and understand its moral lessons.

The Secret Sharer is Joseph Conrad’s short story about a newly appointed ship captain. He possessed all of the technical skills his job demands and indeed possessed all of the experience needed except “the novel experience of command.” His insecurities threaten to upend his new career as a leader. But during his first night onboard, he volunteers to take the anchor watch from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. – unheard of duty for a captain. Walking the deck during his watch, he is alone. He discovers that the rope ladder over the side of the ship has not been hauled in. When he pulls on it, he finds a mysterious stranger clinging to the ladder in the water. He allows the stranger to come aboard without alerting any member of the crew – a breach of procedure.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game as the captain, whose name is never given, hides the stranger’s presence from his crew. The stranger – Leggatt – swam over a mile from the nearby ship Sephora where he was the first mate. But during a storm at sea he had killed an insolent crew member for refusing an order to reef a foresail during the storm. The Sephora’s captain, an inflexible rulebook officer, had locked him in his room to await trial for the unwitnessed incident. Leggatt refused to submit to this kind of “justice” and escaped while his ship was at anchor.

Conrad uses Leggatt as a doppleganger for the insecure new captain. Leggatt possesses all of the personal attributes the new captain lacks. His quest to keep Leggatt hidden from his crew forces the young captain to take risks that steel his backbone. When the wind lifts the sails, the rookie captain orders the anchor hoisted and undertakes a daring feat of seamanship to tack close enough to land for Leggatt to swim ashore to freedom. The new captain’s technical skill allows the ship to catch a land wind in a maneuver that frightens his first mate into virtual paralysis. Asserting his authority by ordering the paralytic first mate to take charge of the crew, the new captain finds himself. That act and his seamanship win the admiration of the crew.

The Secret Sharer is a case study of a new manager in a new role with a new team. No Harvard business case could teach the struggle as well.

People do not read fiction or watch films as observers. Rather they are drawn to participate in the story, making it reality. This has several benefits. It lets them experience how others deal with problems – how their dilemmas confuse them, engage them rationally and emotionally, challenge their values, and force them to balance competing issues. Reading fiction nurtures skills in observation, analysis, diagnosis, empathy, and self-reflection – capacities essential for good customer experiences, for caring about others, and for promoting good leadership practices. Fiction helps its readers to develop insights about people who are different from themselves. As they ponder what they might have done if confronted with a character’s situation, fiction helps its readers to gain insight about themselves as well.

Literary fiction, in contrast to popular fiction, focuses on the psychology of their characters and their interrelationships in the story. The authors of literary fiction reveal their character’s minds only vaguely, leaving out important details. The omission requires the reader to fill in the gaps if the character’s motives are to be understood. Literary fiction is rarely explicit about the internal dialog running inside each character’s mind, which consequently forces the reader to imagine it. This is the way the real world works.

Real world people are complex and multi-dimensional. Their experiences transform them. The same thing happens in literary fiction. Author/critic E. M. Forster calls such characters “round,” distinguishing them from the “flat” characters of popular fiction. The inner lives of round characters are only partially understood by the individuals themselves. Little wonder that readers also struggle to understand them. They can be confusing because they don’t match the reader’s expectations and prejudices about who they should be and how they should act.

Even our children can learn important life lessons from fiction. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, author Bruno Bettelheim asserts that fairy tales help little children learn how others – often children themselves – work through their problems. To that end, G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children dragons can be killed.”

The dragons of the business world, however, do not appear as Grendel or Humbaba the hideous antagonist of Gilgamesh. They appear as Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, WorldCom, and Xerox. How did the leaders of these organizations allow such scandals to happen? Surely, Enron CEO Jeff Skilling did not graduate in the Harvard MBA class of 1979 with the goal of spending years in prison. He was happily married, successful, had three young children, and probably a dog who wonders where he went.

Sociologist Robert Jackall explored how good people make bad decisions in his book, Moral Mazes. He notes that the managers interviewed in his research were not “evil” people in their everyday lives. But in the context of their jobs, they had developed a separate moral code, which Jackall calls the “fundamental rules of corporate life.” It was an altogether separate life – almost a form of non-pathological schizophrenia – needed to resolve the dissonance of their bipolar world.

It’s fair to ask what the study of fictional characters, their dilemmas, and decisions have to do with the customer experience – the goal of our company’s study. I could argue at least three reasons.

First, a customer’s experience is emotional. To deliver it successfully, every member of our company must get into the characters of their customers – never an easy task because most of us lean toward some degree of narcissism. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells a story of Mary, a bratty little self-centered orphan girl sent to live in the English manor house of her uncle. She discovers a secret garden which was created by her uncle’s wife and locked when that aunt died ten years before. Discovering the key, she enters the overgrown garden and, as she begins transforming it, it transforms her.

Mary, the orphan girl, discovers the manor house hides another secret – a secret room in which her cousin, heretofore unknown to her, lives bedridden, the victim of a mysterious spinal ailment that is more psychological than real. Mary smuggles her cousin Colin into the secret garden, and he too is transformed by the garden and the outdoors. Convinced by Mary that his handicap is psychosomatic, he leaves his wheelchair permanently. The children run and play in the secret garden like any healthy children. When his neglectful father returns from traveling and mourning his wife’s death, his son’s newfound health gives the widowed father a reason to get on with his life. He is transformed and becomes a loving father, a role he has shirked for ten years.

A true customer experience can only be delivered by real people who believe in its power to transform its recipients. We’ve all been contaminated by the sour dispositions of some people and we’ve all been lifted up by the sunny dispositions of others. For good or ill, we tend to pass on what we get from others. The Secret Garden uses the regenerative quality of an untended and overgrown garden as symbolic that all life is regenerative. No better argument can be made for the regenerative quality of a customer experience delivered by sensitive people who believe in its power. If there weren’t a scintilla of economic benefit in doing it, why wouldn’t we?

Second, in B2B businesses there isn’t “a customer” – there are multiple customers. Each customer is a type incomparable to other customer types. One size won’t fit them all because their needs are different. We can identify how the experience for one type of customer should be different from that of others. But can we identify how the experience of one individual should be different from that of another? That requires insight into individuals and their differences. It takes judgment to decide how much accommodation of their differences is justified. And it takes patience and sensitivity to deal with the complexities of people who are often unaware of how their behavior comes across to others. As Ethyl Thayer counseled Billy Ray after the fire scene in the play and later film, On Golden Pond:

You mustn’t let Norman upset you, Billy … He wasn’t yelling at you … he was yelling at life … he’s like an old lion … he has to remind himself he can still roar…

Billy, sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember that he’s doing the best he can. He’s just trying to find his way, that’s all. Just like you.

You don’t find that kind of insight in business books.

The third reason is a general belief. I can’t be persuaded that a company of people steeped in the knowledge of a wide range of literary fiction could deliver anything less than a world-class customer experience to their customers. They would treat each other differently. And they would relate to the complexities of family and friendships better. They would be more effective human beings. I don’t think this oversells the value of reading literary fiction. Fiction is a hothouse of human behavior told in the terms of its context.

All of the laws, the lectures, and the sermonizing about evils of racism will never have the same influence to change minds that a single reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has. But it is an obscure incident in which Scout Finch has a bad day with a teacher in her school and wants to stay home that brings the wisdom of her father, Atticus, to bear on this seemingly trivial problem:

First of all, he said, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Lee’s entire story could be encapsulated in that summation.

Your sins may find you out but that doesn’t seem to prevent people from trying to get away without their sins being discovered. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, committed what seemed to be the perfect crime. His doppleganger Svidrigailov gives Raskolnikov a glimpse of where his life is headed. Readers get the sense that Raskolnikov could have gotten away with the murder he committed but his conscience gave him no peace and he voluntarily confessed his deed. A moral spark remained in his soul. He was sent to prison, happily content that redemption only comes through suffering. Too bad Jeff Skilling didn’t read this novel before becoming CEO of Enron. Too bad he didn’t read it in prison. He has yet to admit his guilt and will have no peace until he does.

I predict a bright future for fictional literature if it moves over to the right context: the classrooms of business (and perhaps other professions.) There are many tens of thousands of business books published every year. Only a relative handful of them are worth reading and the scope of each is narrow.

In contrast there are hundreds of thousands of works of literary fiction. Most are worth reading and their scope is broad enough to serve multiple interests.

If I were asked to suggest a good business book for business leaders to read, I’d say read fiction.

Facts over Fear
Stay current with America’s News Digest.