Business has its own literature, a whole range of books, describing best practice in all kinds of areas. But what about a novel? Could a novel be helpful to someone running a business?
It is easy to put a divide between useful writing, and writing designed for entertainment. But let’s not judge too quickly. A novel will impart wisdom and advice, but does so with a characteristically light touch. There are exceptions of course. Ayn Rand is hardly subtle in her cheerleading for the free markets; but generally speaking a novel will present a set of contradictions. The novelist, rather than giving a simple answer to reconciling these contradictions, will tend to stand back and see how things play out.
Think of the classic novel From Here To Eternity by James Jones, which describes life on a United States Army base in Hawaii in the months before and just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The book is really about leadership and the way people work together. Broadly speaking, James Jones presents us with lazy soldiers who just do what they are told, and conscientious, principled, potentially disruptive soldiers who stand up for what they believe is correct and true. Many of the army commanders only value the obedient solider, with tragic problems ensuing.
Applying this to the business world, let’s think about that typical interview question “describe your strengths and weaknesses”. A novel tends to show that strengths and weaknesses are interchangeable, and are better seen as a set of characteristics which play out well or badly depending on circumstances. A novel-reading interviewer is highly unlikely to be thinking “is this a strong or a weak person?” Instead they’ll be wondering: “is this person going to be happy working with us?” Or “does this person have something that our team lacks at the moment, or has in excess?”
Which brings me to my new book, Best Eight. This novel was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.
So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? I set out to explore this, not to make some prescription for the difficult business of creating a team, but to give a feel for the complications involved. A novel will not give answers, but show us the problems which we have to be aware of in finding an answer that works for us.
There are many novels which will help give perspective on all aspects of life, business included. In conclusion here are just an few more great books which might have a particular relevance to the challenges of running a business. Enjoy:
Death Comes For The Archbishop by Wills Cather – a Roman Catholic clergyman has to win over people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds, when he takes over the diocese of New Mexico in the late nineteenth century.
Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy by John Le Carre – a tale of double agents during the Cold War. The book is very interesting on the relative nature of qualities that make a person good at a particular job.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – an inspirational teacher at a Scottish school in the 1930s fires the imagination of pupils with her admiration for the Nazi Party in Europe. An unsettling look at notions of authority, leadership and belonging.
Things Fall Apart by Achebe China – a young man living in a traditional, late nineteenth century Nigerian tribal society, tries to climb the greasy pole of success, at a time when African and British definitions of success collide.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – the story of a high flying business consultant who leaves his job at an American firm soon after 9/11 to return to his native Pakistan. A study in the way the mindset of fundamentalism can worm its way into all aspects of life, religious, personal and business.
Lord Jim by Jospeh Conrad – a sailor makes a mistake at work and pays the price, in a way that makes you question whether we are too quick to judge the performance and competence of others.