In 1990, we read and reviewed The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, who had pioneered a new class at Harvard Business School titled "The Business World: Moral and Social Inquiry Through Fiction." Coles was bound and determined to let the great fiction books about people in business "work their magic on the heart." He also was seeking to foster in the students an empathetic identification with the protagonists in the novels.
All of this came back to us as we read Lisa Haney's article in thebaffler.com where she takes a hard look at "Leadership Through Fiction," a three-hour weekly course taught at Columbia Business School by adjunct associate professor Bruce Craven, "a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter turned business school administrator." She sits in on a class discussion of Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man which depicts the troubles between the Cheyenne tribes and the invading white settlers. Craven sees the central theme here as "the failure to communicate."
Hanley is more than a tad skeptical about this "repurposing literature as management shibboleth." She can buy into the idea of grooming conscientious business leaders through storytelling but has a hard time stomaching Sandra J. Sucher's teaching guide The Moral Leader: Challenges, Insights, Tools. Here the textbook author begins with the study of Machiavelli's The Prince, noting "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." Empathy is simply a skill to be deployed when dealing with an unpleasant moral challenge. This "ruthlessly pragmatic approach" bypasses genuine empathy and puts the accent on "acquiring and maintaining power over others."
It is disheartening, to say the least, to witness the vast distance between the spiritual idealism of Robert Coles and his contemporary successors. We stand by all efforts to bridge the abyss between literature and the education of tomorrow's business leaders, managers, and CEOs. Like Coles, we have derived a treasure trove of ethical and philosophical riches in the novels we have reviewed over the past 30 years. They have had a positive impact on our lives, values, and personal conduct. In the future, we hope and pray that business students may make the connection between what they are reading and the state of their inner lives.