Machiavelli, Morals, and You

What do a butler and a prince know about leadership? A lot more than you would think, as MBA students in Harvard Business School’s course The Moral Leader find out. Here is how they use great literature to become better leaders.
by Martha Lagace

Stevens — we never learn his first name—set out early in life to become a great butler, one of the very best. He didn't want to get rich at it. He didn't care for fancy clothes.

What Stevens wanted more than anything, according to HBS professor Joseph L. Badaracco, "was to become a great butler in a moral sense. He wanted to give his whole life, a life of service—and 'service' is the word he used—to somebody who was serving a larger cause."

Unfortunately, the larger cause Stevens believed himself for decades to be furthering—a kind of loosely defined "world peace"—turned out later to be a horrible sham. In his efforts to be an outstanding butler, Stevens instinctively and continually chose service over other values and opportunities, irretrievably losing the opportunity for true romantic love.

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day offers a keen illustration of one of the keys to leadership: the notion of accountability. Badaracco, the school's John Shad Professor of Business Ethics, uses the novel as part of his course called The Moral Leader, an unusual course for MBA students in which students discuss and debate works of literature in order to investigate important dilemmas that confront leaders. He believes that there are three interlocking elements to most leadership decisions: character, accountability, and pragmatism.

Having To Choose

Talking about the course earlier this month with HBS alumni, Badaracco remarked with slight wonderment that the choices made by Stevens, butler though he was, continue to resonate deeply with MBA students. Among the many works of literature that students read in The Moral Leader, he observed, from classical philosophy to contemporary short stories, The Remains of the Day has consistently been one of the most popular.

Why? In part, Badaracco suggested, it might be because the relationship that develops in the story between Stevens and the head housekeeper is a bit like a contemporary marriage. "They're both busy working during the day, and then they see each other for a little bit at night, and they sort of coordinate their 'To Do' lists for the next day. There's a certain amount of bickering, but they do care about each other."

At the end of the story, though, Stevens emerges as someone who poured everything into his career: he made that choice, and at the time it wasn't clearly a bad choice. "Remember," Badaracco said, "he wanted to be a great butler because in a small way, in a very hierarchical society, that was the only way in which he could make a contribution to larger things. And it didn't turn out very well."

Stevens' fate hits directly on questions of career-life tradeoffs, Badaracco said. "This is where we really get into these issues of accountability. And the second big test of moral leadership is not what kind of character you have or what your values are ... [but] is the world different because of things you have done?"

The World As It Is

The last part of the course focuses on Machiavelli's The Prince. If you look closely at Machiavelli, said Badaracco, the people he admired were the entrepreneurs of his era. They weren't starting new businesses; they were simply changing the way in which people in the west thought about how they should be governed, what they should worship, and how they should have power over their lives.

Leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important human values real and effective, in the world as it is.
—Joseph L. Badaracco

One of Machiavelli's stirring declarations was "Fortune favors the bold," he noted. "He was thinking of Florence under the Medici in particular. He was saying, 'Look at people who were willing to take prudent risks, who were willing to pick their battles, who want to fight today and also be around to fight tomorrow.

"It's practical advice for people who don't want to flame out in an act of glory, however magnificent that may be," Badaracco said. "In some ways, it's Harvard Business School advice. Because you know at the end of our typical [case method] discussions, we talk about what you can do. Not 'What would you really love to do,' but 'Given the people you're working with and the pressures you're under now, what can you do?'"

In that context, students also grapple with the hard choices that faced Abraham Lincoln, as described in historian Richard Hofstadter's essay "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth" from his collection The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Lincoln's struggle, Badaracco suggested, was not just with supporters of slavery in the south and skeptics in the north.

It was also a struggle inside himself, because it later became clear that he made a number of very ambiguous public statements about the evils of slavery. But he also wanted to get elected. The way Lincoln managed to appeal to both sides, Hofstadter wrote, is considered one of the most brilliant acts of political maneuvering in American history.

The full definition of leadership that Badaracco gradually unfolds through literature in the course is: "Leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is."

"And I say to students at the end, 'Those aren't fancy words. They don't rhyme. They don't go on national stones. There's nothing really remarkable about them.'

"The reason I put them at the end of the course is that I hope what students will do when they think about each of those words is understand what I've been trying to point them towards. And that is what [the words] mean in the lives and experiences of the people in these stories."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.