A good book is not just a distraction from the cares of the
office, the real communication and management gurus are
on the fiction shelf. Here are my three favorites and their
First choose a Rudyard Kipling short story, particularly the later ones set in post-First World War England. They are short and often complex, stories told within a story, characters sketched in a line or two of description or casual dialogue. Never too many words. You have to make the connections yourself. But the pauses and the blanks are the hooks which Kipling uses to make his people and situations live on after you close the book.
They say that Kipling never added to his original drafts, he only shortened them. Fewer well-chosen words carry a power that pages of explanation can never match. In our stream-of-consciousness age, Kipling reminds me why less is more.
We don’t have to say everything. What we do choose to communicate should be weighed and edited, claiming attention, then treating readers with respect. And leaving them struck by our control of what is not there as well as what is.
Kipling is a master of that art. But its greatest genius to my mind was French, Guy de Maupassant. Somehow cows sitting down in a rainy Normandy field become fascinating when part of a Maupassant short story. But I like to be patriotic in my management heroes.
Jane Austen must be next. Not this time for her matchless style but for the way she treats her characters. She always gives them second chances.
The worst managers I have come across liked to highlight weaknesses in colleagues to emphasize their own supposed superiority. The rest of us try harder, but at annual appraisal time it is often people’s errors that come most easily to mind.
Austen lets her characters grow, morally and in self-awareness, accepting that the process will not be smooth. And she does not work just with the Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse attractive young heroines. The ponderous Sir Thomas Bertram comes to realize that he has failed to run the Mansfield Park household responsibly and belatedly responds to Fanny’s good influence. Mr. Bennett learns from hard experience that ironic comment in the library is not a substitute for real communication with his irritating younger daughters.
People improve in the office too, and the challenge is to avoid defining their limits by early failures or arguments. Like Jane Austen, without illusions or sentimentality, we need to help our colleagues move from the mistakes of the early chapters toward the clarity of an organizational happy ending.
My final hero is a character rather than an author. I like to talk about building a diverse team and I believe in the advantages it brings. It just happens to be more difficult than managing a team of people all pretty much the same. So for inspiration I turn to the way that the Headmaster of Hogwarts leads his seriously odd assortment of teachers to deliver high quality magical education.
In Albus Dumbledore, J.K. Rowling shows us a leader who is colorfully visible and uses humor as an effective management tool. As the Harry Potter saga unfolds, it becomes clear that Dumbledore knows what his teachers can achieve better than some of them know themselves. He accepts their various foibles with good humor and tolerates what he cannot change, including one teacher hitting the sherry bottle under stress, another with werewolf tendencies, and a third who continually wants someone else’s job.
But he also knows how to draw lines under unacceptable behavior by staff, students or external stakeholders. There will be no Dementors inside Hogwarts while Dumbledore is Head. His appeals to shared values fail to convince everyone – do they ever? – but they carry authority because of his clear commitment to the school. And while managing the day-to-day problems of a large organization, he is also developing a strategy to deal with the threat to its continued existence.
I hope that Dumbledore’s ultimate self-sacrifice goes beyond what is called for by effective managers today. But diversity, tolerance and good humor are timeless leadership and communication virtues in fact as well as fiction.
So those are my literary leaders. I look forward to learning from yours.
Martin Donnelly is a United Kingdom Foreign Office official who has held a range of senior management positions in the public sector.