back to

Better management through belles lettres


At The Baffler website, literary critic Merve Emre traces the growing popularity of literature classes at US business schools. In classes with titles like “Leadership Through Fiction” and “The Moral Leader,” future titans of industry read novels like The Great Gatsby not for insights into the destructive nature of greed or the frailty of human connection, but rather to learn how to improve their communication and leadership skills. Here’s an excerpt:

Coles, like Craven, displayed little patience for ideology critique, institutional reform, or the radical energies of the “New Left heroes,” whom Coles caricatured in interviews as “mean and cruel” in their blithe dismissal of any particular individual’s unique personhood. Even the “activist youth of the 1960s own homes now,” he observed in U.S. News and World Report. “[They] have to worry about getting and keeping a job and paying the bills.” Experience had taught Coles that it was pointless to begin by changing the system or, in this case, the business school; the best one could do was teach people to act virtuously while they made enough money to pay the bills. And it was the “magic of the storytellers,” Coles told his students, that would arm these future bankers with desperately needed interior canons of self-regulation, just in time for the deregulation of financial markets and weakened supervision from the SEC and Federal Reserve.

The “magic” Coles invokes is the magic of sympathetic identification: the afterglow felt by a reader absorbed in a narrative experience that seemed imminently relatable to his own. Under Coles’s tutelage, to read Seize the Day, the story of a middle-class, middle-aged man driven to financial ruin by a dishonest broker, was not an occasion to reflect on the predatory incentives on Wall Street. Rather it was to recall the emotional roller coaster of speculation. As one young trader testified to Coles with palpable glee, “We went wild with joy one minute, and the next you felt the hand of Death on your shoulder. Once I looked around and said to myself, ‘This is all crazy.’” After having a good chuckle at the craziness of the trading floor, he continued doing what he did best—commodities trading.