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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


Books in Brief

Old stories, new jobs, technological hype, and gay leadership.

Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature
By Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.
Harvard Business School Press, 2006
232 pages, $26.95

Photograph montage by Steve Moors
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.

The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan: How to Take Charge, Build Your Team, and Get Immediate Results
By George Bradt, Jayme A. Check, and Jorge Pedraza
Wiley, 2006
240 pages, $25.95

If you are about to take on a new leadership position in an organization, you might want to look at The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, by management consultants George Bradt, Jayme A. Check, and Jorge Pedraza, who specialize in helping managers make a transition from one assignment to another.

The book is divided into three parts — what you should do before accepting a new role, the 100-day action plan itself, and the later, ongoing adjustments to the inevitable surprises, avoiding the most common mistakes, and building loyalty, trust, and commitment. Simple frameworks for applying the ideas in the book are appended to most of the chapters, and forms laying out timetables and other sorts of organization are also available online, where they can be customized.

The concepts themselves are plain vanilla — part and parcel of every Management 101 course — but they fit well with the book’s short-term focus on the individual taking a new position. The book has three strengths: The first is the emphasis the authors place on being active well before Day One; the second is the anecdotes that accompany the concepts; and the last is the importance placed on the use of symbols and contexts.

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