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James March: What Don Quixote Teaches Us About Leadership

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James March: What Don Quixote Teaches Us About Leadership

A scholar discusses literature, power, and "the two most important things to know about innovation."
From the 1972 file of Man of La Mancha (Photo from the Everett Collection)

"We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither," narrates James March in his 2003 film, Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership. "But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is."

Don Quixote statue
In his film "Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership," Professor James March explores how pursuing a dream full force can lead to joy and even success. (Flickr photo by Fugue)

The film, inspired by March's landmark Organizational Leadership course, which he taught from 1980 to 1994, weaves together examples from the 17th-century Spanish novel, interviews with Stanford alumni leaders, and vignettes from news broadcasts and movies to illustrate that pursuing a dream with all one's convictions can be crazy, but can also lead to joy and even success. We recently asked March about what leaders can learn from Don Quixote and other literature.

Of all the characters in literature, why did you select Don Quixote as the subject of your film about leadership?

As I say in the film, Quixote is hardly a good model for leadership, but he provides a basis for thinking about what justifies great action. Why do we do what we do? Our standard answer is that we do what we do because we expect it to lead to good consequences. Quixote reminds us that there is another possible answer: We do what we do because it fulfills our identity, our sense of self. Identity-based actions protect us from the discouragement of disappointing feedback. Of course, the cost is that it also slows learning. Both types of actions are essential elements of human sensibility, but our usual conversations — particularly in business settings and schools — tend to forget the second.

In your writing, you have called our society "consequentialist." What do you mean by this, and what are the limitations of this kind of society?

Different writers mean somewhat different things when they talk about consequentialism, but I mean simply an emphasis on expected consequences as a justification for action. When I say our society is consequentialist, I mean simply that the dominant norms in the society associate virtue, or intelligence, with actions taken to maximize the utility of expected consequences. A major problem with pursuing consequences is that great expectations are rarely realized, and a decision-maker becomes discouraged and cynical.

There's a point made in the film that most visions are misguided, more likely to lead to spectacular failure than success. How does one recognize the rare vision with the potential for success?

The two most important things to know about innovation are: (a) that most new ideas are bad ones, and (b) that separating the rare good ideas from the many bad ones among new ideas is ordinarily impossible. A good deal of effort has been expended in trying to develop some reasonable procedures for the early identification of good ideas. Most such procedures involve applying existing knowledge to identify errors, but what distinguishes truly innovative new ideas is precisely that they violate some aspects of existing knowledge, so are particularly vulnerable to early rejection. Although numerous people have proposed ways of dealing with this dilemma, I think it is fair to say that no one has demonstrated a procedure with any significant reliability.

As Marc Andreessen, one of the founders of Netscape, said, "Fundamental change comes out of left field. It has to be an idea that's viewed as crazy at the time. If any idea looks like a good idea, there are lots of big companies out there like Microsoft that would already be doing it."

Is there an effective way to orchestrate innovation within an organization? Or does it depend on the arrival of a visionary making identity-based decisions?

I'm not sure those are the only two alternatives. Not so long ago, I wrote a little book, The Ambiguities of Experience, that has a chapter on novelty and a section on "The Engineering of Novelty." The section is short, and the ideas are not particularly profound. One well-known strategy is to limit the "bet size" of investments in novelty by differentiating among wild ideas by small-scale experiments and then increasing investments in successful projects. Another strategy is to partition an organization into diverse subgroups. Parochialism among units encourages homogenization within them but diversity among them. The diversity is useful, however, only if the boundaries between groups are at least partially permeable, and it is difficult to specify the optimum balance of parochialism and cross-group contact.

Identity-based visionaries are useful in stimulating new ideas and persistence in them, but they are not always as useful in encouraging cross-group contact. And, of course, visionaries are more likely to be crazies than geniuses.

In the 11 years since you made the film, have your views on this subject changed, or are there points you wish you had made?

I am not an intellectual historian and least of all a historian of myself, but I wish I had been able to deal more effectively with the trade-offs between consequential thinking and identity thinking. The essential position in the Quixote film is that our society is so overcommitted to consequential logics that one has to push the alternative hard in order to achieve any kind of reasonable balance. That is, I think, reasonable pedagogy, but it is not totally comfortable as an intellectual position.

You used to include in syllabi for leadership and literature courses caveats such as, "No claims of practicality or relevance are made or implied." What did you hope students would get out of your classes?

The cliché is, of course, that I hoped the course would make them think, not answer questions but shape how they think about them. I suppose every teacher hopes for that, but most of the time we try to sneak thought-provoking ideas into some exercise that will strike the students as relevant in a practical way. My strategy, to some extent, was to challenge the instinct for relevance that gave students an illusion of practicality in their studies.

If a leader wants to be inspired through literature to think broadly about leadership, management and power, what — in addition to Don Quixote — would you put on the reading list, and why?

I used to tell students that, properly approached, any work of great literature would do the job. I think that is true, but it is particularly true of the works of people such as Ibsen, Dostoyevsky and Henry James.

The point is not that there are role models, but that the novels/plays wrestle with fundamental questions relevant to leadership. For example, I have written about how Ibsen can be used to examine the way in which individuals reconcile the claims of their ideals with the reality of their lives, in particular the way in which high ideals suborn lies. The issue is particularly salient to The Wild Duck, but it appears in many of Ibsen's plays.

What are your interests currently?

I am still trying to figure out the contradictory lessons of Quixote and occasionally giving lectures to Chinese executives in which I encourage them to look at classical Chinese literature, which, as I read it, urges a ruler to be deeply committed to the pursuit of a project and, at the same time, profoundly skeptical of the commitment and the project.

James G. March is the Jack Steel Parker Professor of International Management, Emeritus, at Stanford GSB, where he has been on faculty since 1970. Watch the film Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership.

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