Once upon a time, there was a young man called Victor who was encouraged by his parents to seek a greater understanding of the world through science. When his mother died, he became obsessed by the possibilities of chemistry and other sciences. He soon achieved the innovation of his life by developing a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter. He created life from death, but the result was a two metre, ghoulish creature that, in the tragic end, killed everything that Victor loved.
A modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might prompt today’s technology entrepreneurs and innovators to anticipate the collateral effects of technological innovation. While seeing and shaping the future is a key competence for tomorrow’s CEO, this classic piece of literature warns about the unbalanced pursuit of a goal without regard for its unintended consequences on stakeholders. Think such controversial topics as industrialisation and the environment, big data and privacy, or genetically modified organisms and health. The point of retelling the story is not to stifle innovation, but rather to consider responsibility for its consequences beyond one’s immediate line of sight.
A recent article on BBC News, The super secret weapon of CEOs, suggests that poetry helps executives distil complex ideas related to the challenges they face each day. The same has been claimed about good literature. A fine piece of fiction addresses the same big questions — change, strategy, risk, critical decisions — that executives need to master to take their businesses forward. What’s more, good novels develop empathy and emotional skills that are necessary to doing business well. Indeed, the strategists that are needed to transform businesses often take time out to reflect. A compelling novel - written to engage us deeply, move us powerfully, reach us and teach us subconsciously – can help leaders access that state of reflection.
Here’s a handful of novels that I’ve used in the management classroom, in my work outside of PwC, that might also help sharpen the all-round capabilities of tomorrow’s CEO.
- For understanding customer needs, try The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s the story of Mae Holland, a customer experience supervisor who volunteers to surrender her personal life to become a member of the perpetual social network of the corporation that employs her. The author presents a world where data and connectedness enable knowledge of everything, but it also points to the perils of over connectedness.
- How about Leo Tolstoy’s Master and Man for the ability to take decisions in an unsettled environment. A landowner and his peasant server embark on a journey from one village to another. They leave in a hurry as the landowner is blindly focused on beating his competition to complete land purchase. They don’t consider the risks, and along the way they encounter shifting conditions that throw problem after problem in their way. A tale of risk and reward.
- A Week in December by Sebastien Faulks is a fictitious lookback to eve of the global economic crash. The place is London, December 2007, when a city hedge fund manager considers a move that will collapse a big bank but will make him billions. A wealthy businessman and his son, a barrister, a journalist and a train driver add to the colourful cast of characters that remind us of everything we don’t know that can impact the business world, and thus the need see around corners when navigating risky business.
Take a look at this infographic of other classic, new and obscure novels that might enhance your leadership skills. What’s on your list?
Christopher Michaelson is Associate Professor of Ethics & Business Law at the University of St. Thomas and has published extensively in academic and trade journals. Christopher is also a Director at PwC US where he leads the Strategy and Risk Institute. Read more