As a student of literature, you spend a lot of time examining character and motivation. Why is Gatsby such a chipper guy? Why doesn’t Santiago just cut the fish loose and head home? What are Estragon and Vladimir really waiting for?
When I was in college, I thought examining literature was fun. Occasionally, I even appreciated how beautiful, simple, complicated, powerful was a single phrase, chapter or volume. To this day, my chest tightens when I read “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” not because it’s the very best thing I ever read (I don’t know, maybe it is), but because after I read it many times, I somehow knew the young woman inside the poem, and she’s been with me for decades.
I had no idea I’d ever have any everyday use for this kind of understanding. At the time I remember thinking literature was interesting, but I worried it was erudite and isolated and in no way a practical pursuit. But two years after I graduated from college, I landed a job as a supervisor of a small documentation department in a university computing center. (That’s what Information Technology was called back then, either that or “data processing,” if you can imagine.) For me, it was the uncharted beginning of a 25-year career in management, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I spend (notice I say “spend” not “spent”) with great books, meeting and thinking about ordinary and exceptional people in ordinary and exceptional circumstances.
The workplace is full of ordinary and extraordinary people, and often some who seem like average run-of-the-mill folks one day are surprising, amazing, even bizarre the next. The workplace itself runs the same gamut, from drab and predictable to intense and creative, from grim and stingy to gracious and good-humored.
Some in business leadership approach people and organizations as if this range of emotions and experiences doesn’t really exist or, if it does, it’s sort of irrelevant. “It’s what you do that matters, not why you do it,” they think. “It’s productivity we’re after!”
After awhile, though, even the more hard-core among the productivity mongers begin to realize there’s a connection between productivity and motivation. That is, when people are motivated to do a good job, they work willingly and productively. When they’re not, they don’t. Suddenly, these same leaders are quite interested in “how to motivate people.” They spend money on seminars, leadership books, in-house training programs hosted by self-described “experts” promising that an army of newly “motivated” employees will take the company to new heights.
Fortunately for all of us who claim to be human beings, motivation is more complicated than that and can’t be cranked into high gear for groups of people using formulas provided by “experts.” The secrets to fathoming motivation live many places. One of them is within the pages of great books. So if you’re reading some, consider that you may, indeed, be preparing yourself to be in business leadership. I can’t remember a time in history, not in my lifetime anyway, when we’ve had a greater need for leaders with clarity, breadth and depth of vision and understanding. Will literature prepare you for this in every way? Perhaps not. But in important ways, it certainly does.