Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

Literature and Leadership

3 minute
Literature book

Throughout the history of Kaufman Hall, we have put the very highest priority on innovative thinking.

We keep our eyes open for fresh insights from any source and in any setting. From scientists to op-ed writers, from business to sports, we seek anything that might challenge and sharpen our thinking, that might help us provide advice to our clients that they won’t get elsewhere. We also put great effort toward sharing what we learn with all the people in our orbit through our writing, speaking, and annual Healthcare Leadership Conference.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a remarkable person who showed us what a scholar in religious history and literature is teaching business executives about leadership.

Brooke Vuckovic

Brooke Vuckovic is a Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. Brooke earned her MA and PhD from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, where she studied the history of religions. Her research focused on how religious leaders and religious communities used stories to define who they are and what they value.

Brooke also taught in the writing program at the UChicago’s renowned Booth School of Business. Over time, Brooke solidified a vital connection between her study of literature and her work with business students.

“I wanted to talk about the morally complex issues that leaders face, when there’s no right answer, where it can even be difficult to figure out how to talk about it. Literature offers us a way to do just that.”

What emerged was a course titled “Moral Complexity in Leadership: An Exploration Through Literature.”

Leadership Issues

Brooke’s course is structured around a remarkable list of complex moral issues that leaders will predictably face as they are building a path to success—issues that have no clear answers and require the kind of careful reflection that business executives, including hospital executives, may typically have trouble finding the time and tools to undertake.

Greed: “What is enough?” Brooke asks. “And, importantly, what's worth wanting? Our culture is an acquisitive one in general. If you don’t have a solid sense of what’s worth wanting, our culture will serve up an all-consuming answer of never-enoughness.”

Empathy: “What gets in the way of empathy—how power and empathy overlay with one another, how the increase of power, wealth, status, can often, without watching for it, reduce our capacity for empathy even if we never make that conscious decision.”

The cost of misplaced loyalty. “What happens when you put all of your loyalty, allegiance, time, talents, and strengths into service of something that turned out to not be what you had hoped it was.”

Moral hubris: “When you are absolutely certain that you’re right about something, especially a moral issue, and the potential downsides of that certainty.”

Internal moral conflict and rationalizations: “When there is no one right answer, and you’re managing intractable dilemmas and conflict.”

Relationships under pressure: “How stress, pressure, and limited options profoundly affect us as individuals and in relationships within our community.”

When you think about it, these are the issues that often make or break a great executive and a great leader. And often these same issues make or break their respective organizations. Think how often, in recent times, the critical business decisions have rotated not around the day-to-day issues of profitability or strategy, but around extraordinarily complicated moral and ethical business issues. Choices have to be made and in 2024 the consequences of those choices are absolutely unforgiving.

How Literature Illuminates

With this list in hand, Brooke assembled literary works that illustrated these moral issues in all their complexity. “I wanted,” Brooke said, “to include works like those of Sophocles and Tolstoy, but also those of Ken Liu, Lynn Nottage, Jhumpa Lahiri, and other contemporary authors who are often more accessible and interesting to readers today.”

For just one example, to explore the downsides of hubris and certainty, one text Brooke uses is the ancient Greek drama Antigone by Sophocles in which Creon wants to establish his authority to stabilize a warring city, in part by refusing to honor Polyneices, seen as a traitor, with a public burial. However, Antigone, who is niece of Creon and sister of Polyneices, insists on her brother’s burial.

“You have this setup,” Brooke explained, “where formal authority is facing a challenge, you have social structures of young woman and older man, and you have both of them utterly convinced that they are right, and they are speaking past one another. One is talking about duty to the state and the right of law, and the other is talking about duty to family and the gods.”

Brooke asks her students how this situation applies to their own sense of certainty. After long and sometimes difficult conversations, the classes usually discover that “you are able to have a more productive conversation when you identify that someone is coming from a different moral foundation than your own.” The text and discussion, Brooke said, “helps leaders gain more fluidity on these different foundations. Because, like most people in the world today, they’re having a hard time understanding the perspectives of those whose opinions differ from their own. Antigone shows us, in the way that only Greek tragedy can, the dire consequences of such blindness.”

Learning to Read

Underpinning everything Brooke teaches about leadership and literature is a method of thinking that in many ways runs counter to what business executives practice in their everyday working lives. That method of thinking is modeled in the method of engaging with literature.

“Many of my business students haven’t read literature for years. They are used to reading non-fiction or scrolling on their phone or reading from sources that basically spoon-feed information with the key points in bold font. So, the first lesson is building their capacity for attention to simply read through the story itself without distraction. Next is to extract lessons from the work. That boils down to characters, conflicts, and choices.

“Who are the characters? What do these characters have to teach me? Who do I find the most relatable? How would I describe them to someone else? Who do I find the least relatable? How would I describe them?

“Next are conflicts and choices that the characters face. What are the moral conflicts, the characters’ positions, and their interests? How are they colliding? Where are they aligned? After you’ve described conflict, you start to notice patterns—for example, conflicts between individual choice and community concern—which further opens up the ability to analyze situations, for example, by considering what advice we would offer the characters.”

For those of us in a business environment, facts often seem to be the foundation of our professional lives: consumer satisfaction and engagement rates, levels of profitability and liquidity, market share and credit ratings. At the same time, executives are terrifically burdened by an influx of information, requiring that we separate, sometimes mercilessly, the essential from the not-quite-essential.

Brooke Vuckovic certainly acknowledges the importance of fact and of identifying essential information. In the case of literature, that means returning to the page to support one’s interpretations and perspectives. However, Brooke emphasizes that these facts are just the beginning of a far richer level of thought and discourse about moral issues that are as pressing and as important as any more quantitative business issue. These issues also have a different type and level of complexity from more objective business decisions, requiring a very different level of attention and a very different style of engagement.

Brooke has shown us that there is no better training for this kind of thoughtful attention than the active reading of literature.

As Brooke says, “Once you learn to read, facilitate, and engage with literature in this way, then the world is your oyster.”

The types of issues coming at executives today are increasing exponentially in complexity, frequency, and intensity, with profound consequences for individual and organizational success. When these higher-level issues show up, you have to get them right. And the only way to do that is with a practice of judicious thought that is as sophisticated as these issues demand. Literature can help you practice (when it doesn’t matter) the same skills of analysis, argumentation, and conversation that support leadership wisdom and discernment.

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