HBR Caselets? Why not Julius Caesar excerpts?

The use of case studies is one of the most common methods of understanding managerial skills. The cases usually begin with the description of the CEO looking outside the window or taking a coffee sip. Business students read the case, try to comprehend what the manager did right or wrong (more often the latter), figure out the underlying problems, diagnose a proposed state, list down the suggested solutions and frame an action plan.

Fiction—short stories, novels, plays and films—offers an alternative means of teaching the development and consequences of human values. Works of literature may have less face value than the business case with its financial charts and graphs, but they offer other advantages.

When you consider the role of marketing and communications overall, ultimately we are in the business of persuasion (or influence).  We are trying to get people to think, feel, or act in a different way to our brands.  With this in mind, there are three main ways brands tend to do this;

Through rhetoric– they give people the facts, statistics etc. In other words, brands tell people that they should believe in them because they just proved it.

Through storytelling – brands take the facts and dramatise them.  In doing so they involve people in the communication.

Through coercion – brands bribe or bully consumers in to something.

Now for me the second one is far and away the most powerful, but why?  The problem with number one is that while it obviously does work, as soon as a brand tells you lots of statistics of facts, human nature makes us also question them.  In fact, by only giving the consumer one side to the story, people can even come to doubt the authenticity of the source.  So what about number 3?  Well, this route obviously works to persuade us too, otherwise we would not have sales, offers and more. The problem with coercion though is that it is short term. as many a brand that has discounted heavily through the recession will know, when you come out the other side it is far from easy to then persuade people to pay more.

So that leaves you with route 2.

If a piece of literature is dated, it is regarded as classic—a concept students have learned to recognize rather than condemn. Also, since it is fiction, the author has placed in the work all appropriate information. No one can bring in another piece by a different author and say that the central character in the assigned work also knew about facts in the second. It is fixed—nothing happens outside of the boundaries of the story. When literature develops management principles, it is a novel approach (no pun intended). Business students do not have a procedure for analyzing the principle of a short story, no pie charts to represent the consequences, no bar graphs showing comparisons of what could have been; it forces them to look at business issues and values in a new way.

Some works of literature that provide understanding into managerial issues are about business people and business problems. According to Robert A. Brawer, author of Fictions of Business: Insights on Management from Great Literature (1998), “George Bernard Shaw’s industrialist, Andrew Undershaft; David Mamet’s salesman, Richard Roma; and Theodore Dreiser’s financier, Frank Cowperwood, engage us as businesspeople and as individuals because what they are made to say and do reflects what we can imagine ourselves saying and doing under generally similar circumstances”.

The works of Shakespeare demonstrate the issues and values of friendship, diligence, acting liberally, status, and wisdom. Think about Henry II, a play depicting the descent of one king and the ascent of another. In it Shakespeare portrays an account of the endowments and sense of principle that enable one to show the way, and the vanity and lack of conclusion that make leadership unworkable for another.

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An excerpt from Julius Caesar, between two angry Roman leaders, Brutus and Cassius, dealt with conflict management.  The learning in this case was that you need to avoid getting personal in stressful encounters; don’t assume another person’s motivations; and be mindful of outside influences.

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One such passage from Hamlet in which Polonius is sent off to school in France depicted values, such as; listen more than you speak; make friends carefully and keep those you have close; be careful with your personal finances; and most interestingly, “to thine own self be true”.

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Literature from other cultures also demonstrates the values of that culture. Sheila Puffer’s book Management across Cultures: Insights from Fiction and Practice (1996) contains short stories telling a variety of international experiences, ranging from that of a Japanese family adapting to life in Paris to the personal values and thoughts on work conveyed at a retirement party in Russia.

Although not literature in the standard sense, well-written and directed movies can be particularly useful means of teaching values. While we initially get caught up in the drama and action of Crimson Tide or 12 O’clock High, a discussion of decision-making, respect for subordinates, and motivation quickly follows. And the leadership technique and values of the over-the-hill basketball coach in Hoosiers always demonstrates that leadership is a self-motivated activity, even with the same people occupied in the same task.

Rabindranath Tagore’s quotes have people oriented lessons infused in them. “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”… a beautiful quote that shows the importance of emotions and why emotions must be cared for even if logic and reason rule the scenario.

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“For us the brightest purpose of this world is not merely living in it, knowing it and making use of it, but realizing our own selves in it through expansion of sympathy; not alienating ourselves from it and dominating it, but comprehending and uniting it with ourselves in perfect union” – a Classic quote on active management and goodness by Tagore.

A good brand story doesn’t just understand that life is full of highs and lows, it embraces them.  Why?  Because when a consumer sees this they can start to place themselves in the story emotionally.  A good story is thus persuasive because it is human. This is why people get upset when someone criticises a film or brand that they like – the story has become a part of them.  So in short, when it comes to persuasion, management books will certainly help, but great works of authors like Shakespeare and Tagore are likely to be a more enduring place for your brand to look for inspiration. I know which one is more likely to be on people’s shelves in twenty years time anyway!

 

This article is written by Debalina Haldar, class of 2015 student at IIM Lucknow. Her novel, The Female Ward, was published in May, 2013. She is the Creative Head and Core Coordinator of the Media and Communication Cell at IIM Lucknow.

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Follow Debalina at debalina.insideiim.com

 

Debalina Haldar

an 'unlikely uncommon quintessential' engineer

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