How Literature Creates A More Moral Future CEO

literature that helps his future MBAs learn how to deal with the ethical gray areas, competing interests and multiple points of view they’ll encounter during their careers.

How Literature Creates A More Moral Future CEO
[Image: Flicker user Robert Scarth]

Joseph Badaracco is a Harvard Business School professor who thinks business school could use a more right-brained approach.


That’s why his students don’t come to class prepared to dive into accounting jargon, org charts or management principles. Instead, Badaracco structures each semester of his class “The Moral Leader” around a set of literary works.

His students aren’t given tests, instead, a 15-page paper determines 40 percent of their grade. The rest comes from participation–from, for example, having something insightful to add to discussions about things like what Sir Thomas More was willing to die for in A Man for all Seasons or why Machiavelli’s The Prince has been referred to as “a handbook for thugs.”

Creating a More Balanced Leader

The class and the way it’s structured are part of Badaracco’s crusade to balance the left brain side of things with literature that helps his future MBAs learn how to deal with the ethical gray areas, competing interests and multiple points of view they’ll encounter during their careers. The analysis is possible among his students because they’re studying characters whose idiosyncrasies, motivations and inner dialogue are all right there on the page.

Which means that, in Badaracco’s class, the understanding of what makes a good leader starts with searching for truth in works of fiction.

“It takes something really big to shape somebody,” says Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. “The reason literature can have that influence–these books kind of get under peoples’ skin.

Finding Yourself In Fiction

“People have been reacting to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or the ship captain in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer for decades. Obviously, a business leader has to have talent and competence, but that’s not the same as something like one of these books that gets under your skin. Because you read these books, and you might see one of these characters and think, ‘That’s me.’”


It’s an insight with broad applicability for anyone interested in leadership, Badaracco says, and isn’t confined to the four walls of his classroom. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, once told a Newsweek reporter why Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is such a seminal novel and one of his favorite books. (It’s also one of the books Badaracco’s students read.)

Encouraging the Moral Leader

Anyone who reads that story of a butler’s melancholy rumination on his life’s work, Bezos explained, “can’t help but come away and think, ‘I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life, and I learned something about life and about regret.’”

Badaracco’s course syllabus includes questions for students to ponder as they read. Students are instructed, for example, to identify lessons that Ishiguro’s novel suggests about moral reasoning and to think about how Stevens, the main character, regards “butlering.”

“This course is intensely practical, if the term practical is understood to include preparation for living a morally responsible life,” the syllabus explains. “One of the goals of this course is to move you beyond your immediate reactions in challenging situations toward a more considered and analytical approach to moral and ethical decision-making.”

Because the books are regarded as a different kind of case study for these business students to learn from, Badaracco’s not looking for an understanding of symbols, meanings and themes.

“I think what you get from serious literature is a warts-and-all view of people and people in leadership positions,” he says. “In other words, the authors can be basically unsparing. The good stuff and bad stuff and the confused stuff going over (the characters’) heads, it’s all there. You can see it and learn from how these characters made decisions.”


In 2006, he wrote a book about this same idea: Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature. His thesis is simple. Unlike in the real world, where someone in the business world might catch fleeting, outside glances of a leader, “serious literature,” he writes, “offers a view from the inside.”

He turns to the play A Man for All Seasons as an example. In it, More is a Catholic who’s torn between wanting to serve King Henry VIII–who wants to divorce his current wife and marry again–and his religious belief that divorce is wrong.

“What you see in the play is someone who was a hero for standing up to King Henry,” Badaracco says. “But most of what you see is him maneuvering to try to make good on a whole set of obligations–serve the king, serve his country, protect his family and protect himself.”

Bottom Line: “It’s an example of the definition of leadership I came up with that pulls the course together: Leadership is a struggle by a flawed human being to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is.”

About the author

Andy Meek is a freelance writer for Fast Company whose work also has been featured on Buzzfeed, and Business Insider, among other places. He lives in Memphis and can be reached at