Can we gain leadership skills from great works of fiction?

What a privilege it was to attend a conference of around 100 global leadership scientists, the 3rd Interdisciplinary Perspective on Leadership Symposium – and even more so when it is held in a warm week in spring on the beautiful island of Crete. But now, what can one offer back to a community of managers and academics? It can only be a very subjective choice.


Same story, different meaning

To choose communication behaviour as a focus for managers’ practice is normally not a straightforward choice for me. At other conferences or talks I am typically bored by the simplicity of how managers should improve communication. However, here was Michelle Dickson, from George Washington University, introducing us to a great idea. Her work builds on the coordinated management of meaning (CMM) by Pearce, Cronen and Harris (1982).

In a nutshell CMM reminds us that communication is a process co-created with people – NOT a one way-street of managers talking.

CMM is also about communicating meaning at work which is increasingly expected by organisational members. Yet this meaning can play out very differently when co-created in different contexts – the authors speak of-5-6 levels. For instance, whatever you like to convey as a manager, its meaning can alter depending on:

  • the actual style of speaking
  • the identity or self of people involved
  • the relationships with other people
  • specific episodes during the communication process
  • the culture of an organization and its people

This framework is a nice reminder for managers about the challenge of creating consistent stories for change, success or development in the organisation or tribe.

Meet the destructive leaders from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

Another gem I took from the conference, was surprisingly, a new view on the value of literature. Not only the exciting scientific stuff, but Cécile Emery (University of Surrey) and Claudia Jonczyk (ESCP Europe) connected Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (or Demons) to leadership. Thinking of the five Dostoevsky books on the shelf at home, I was reminded of a time when the sheer amount of reading for this job had not pushed aside reading for pleasure. Here may be a way back.

Portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872

Cécile and Claudia use the fictional characters in The Possessed to explore how negative leadership emerges. The character Nikolai Stavrogin exhibits positive attributes but also characteristics typical of destructive leaders. Peter Verkhovensky, while actually in a follower position, according to Cécile and Claudia his purpose, actions and drive ultimately enable collective destructive leadership. The dividing line between leaders and followers vanishes.

Does this picture sound familiar when thinking about your own work?

What an idea to learn about leadership and followership from fiction. If you think about it, many of us already do, by consulting inspiring biographies or autobiographies which often read like works of fiction. Why not go straight to the real thing?

Try this:

I appreciate you might not be able to go to leadership conferences. Instead, when you meet your sounding board or have lunch with colleagues, identify one of your best processes of communication. What was the role of the others in creating meaning and stories? How did you convey meaning in the multiple contexts you have to consider? What role did personal identities, relationships with other people or the culture of your organization play?

Or, when you read your holiday books or you re-read the books of your youth, why don’t you filter for the concrete leadership of the louder and quieter protagonists. What is their behaviour, how do they tell stories, what are the consequences? How has their eco-system enabled them towards positive or negative action?

Happy engaging – stay tuned

by Prof Bernd Vogel

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