moral leader

Episode 33: The Moral Leader

Our guest in this episode is Joe Badaracco from the Harvard Business School. Decades ago, he designed a literature-based course for MBA students to enable them to deeply explore moral issues which they may well encounter in their professional lives.

One of us (Mike) taught a section of this course at HBS for several years. The other (Kim) is considering launching a course like this at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Joe explains why exploring moral questions though plays, short stories, and novels is more effective than using standard business school cases. Cases typically focus on management problems—how to secure financing, for example, or whether to launch a new initiative. By contrast, much of literature is about people wrestling over who they want to be, their values, and how to manage conflicting responsibilities.

Joe’s course is also unusual also in the way he teaches. He never writes on the blackboard. Joe doesn’t show PowerPoint slides. He doesn’t offer take-aways at the close. Instead throughout the whole class he simply sits on a table in the front of the room, guiding the students’ discussion with a light hand.

In this episode we discuss the moral issues raised by some of the books he assigns. Here are three titles you might want to take a look it. If you’re intrigued, we encourage you to set up an informal reading group, maybe with your family, some friends, or perhaps colleagues at work. From our own experience, we’re confident that you’ll find it both enjoyable and enlightening.

  • Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishigoro (and also a movie starring Anthony Hopkins). Is it enough simply to be diligent in carrying out your responsibilities? What if you are working for a person or an enterprise with dubious integrity?
  • Antigone, by Sophocles. The hardest moral questions aren’t between right and wrong. Rather, they involve reconciling competing obligations, choosing, if you will, between right and right.
  • “Blessed Assurance,” a novella in Alan Gurganus’s White People. Here the question is character. Can virtuous behavior atone for past sins?

Share your thoughts