Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature

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By Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.
Harvard Business School Press, 2006
232 pages, $26.95

It has long been recognized that good fiction often does a better job of capturing the emotional realities of organizational life than nonfiction. In Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, draws on his experience teaching MBA students and uses eight selections from serious fiction to encourage executives to explore in depth what it really means to “know thyself.”

The stories include Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and Sophocles’s Antigone. Each of the eight discussions is preceded by a key question and then by Professor Badaracco’s thumbnail outline of the story and its protagonist. The eight key questions, such as “Do I have a good dream?” and “How flexible is my moral code?” are backed up by subsidiary questions, as the author, in Socratic fashion, rejects easy, superficial responses. He is critical, for example, of the metaphor of the moral compass, arguing that it is useful only for dealing with questions of right and wrong. Many, if not most, leadership challenges demand a choice between two “rights” or, worse still, between two “wrongs.”

Thus the reader is forced by the writer into uncomfortable depths, but is accompanied and supported by the stories, which act as mirrors to his or her own experience. The word experience, as the author points out, means literally “from peril,” so in all the stories the actors face dangerous situations in which their characters will be sorely tested. Some leaders, like the captain in Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer,” pass the test as they step up to the responsibility of leadership. Others, such as Louis Auchincloss’s Tony Lowder in I Come as a Thief, are destroyed by the experience.

This unusual book will appeal to reflective managers who may be tired of the formulaic “answers” found in so much management writing. Questions of Character shows how it is possible, through the creative use of the Socratic method, to build the feeling of a personal encounter into a management book.

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