Leadership & Management

Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership

Drawing on classical literature and contemporary film, Jim March creates a movie produced in Europe and America based on the idealism in Cervantes' novel.

May 01, 2003

| by Janet Zich

A retired professor of business, education, political science, sociology, and psychology — not to mention the author of six books of poetry — James G. March recently turned his attention to film. Nearly a decade after he last taught his landmark course Organizational Leadership, March has translated part of it into the lecture-length film Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote’s Lessons for Leadership.


March wrote the script and narrated the film against backgrounds in Europe and the United States. Passion and Discipline, which was produced by Schecter Films for the Graduate School of Business, was directed and edited by Steven C. Schecter, an independent producer and director of nationally broadcast documentary films. It features an original score written and performed by flamenco guitarist Gerardo Nuñez; conversations with the late John Gardner and other leaders; and a wealth of clips from televised news broadcasts, classic films, comedy shorts, and dramatic versions of the Cervantes classic. In short, Passion and Discipline is a lecture come to colorful, provocative, joyous life.

But why Don Quixote? What lessons can we learn from the fictional 16th-century gentleman who careered around the Spanish countryside tilting at windmills and challenging sheep to battle? Indeed, as March says in the film: “We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.”

Quixote lived his life with passion and discipline, March says, much as a flamenco dancer performs with seeming abandon, yet acts within the strictures of the art. Leaders can learn from Quixote, whose life was dedicated to imagination, commitment, and joy. “The critical concerns of leadership are not technical questions of management or power, they are fundamental issues of life,” March says.

If the bumbling Don Quixote seems an unlikely role model for leaders, so March’s required reading — War and Peace, Othello, Saint Joan, and Don Quixote — must have appeared ill suited to the study of Organizational Leadership, the class that inspired the film. Back in the seventies March had been teaching a traditional course in business leadership when he realized the questions it asked were better addressed in great literature than in any of the standard texts on leadership.

“We probably overestimate the intelligence of our students, but we underestimate their intellect,” March says. “Most of them have come through very good undergraduate programs. They want to learn the techniques of business, but they’re starving for intellectual conversation. If you give them a chance to have a serious conversation about a serious subject, they dig in. One of the great things about the Business School here is that it treats students as if they have intellect as well as intelligence.”

Each year for nearly two decades some three to four hundred undergrads and grad students flocked to March’s revised leadership class, which was cross-listed in many departments of the University. About 100 were MBA students. They met for two hours of lecture and discussion twice a week and in additional, optional discussion sections. “I would never share this with any teaching assistant, so I taught all the discussion sections,” March recalls. “It was a considerable drain on energy, but it was really exhilarating. All day Friday I had these sections. My wife said I came home on a total high.”

In 1999, four years after March retired from Stanford and the course, which by now was legendary, he was approached by Joel Podolny, then a senior associate dean at the Business School, who suggested he try to put the course on film. “I said, ‘No. This is an idea course.’ I didn’t want to just film lectures. It was hard for me to see how to translate it into film.”

Undeterred, Podolny introduced March to Schecter, and March was won over. “Steve brought an entirely different set of talents to the project. He had the artistry and the technology to produce it,” March says. “What impressed me about Jim,” says Schecter, “is how open he was to learning new things.”

The March-Schecter marriage of talents wasn’t always harmonious, however. “We fought all the time!” March recalls. “I’d say, ‘It’s a wonderful image, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the film.’” Says Schecter, diplomatically: “Jim had a very specific idea of how the argument would unfold according to the intellectual content. Sometimes this was at odds with my idea of how to tell the story.” Despite their disagreements and despite the sinking feeling on both sides they would never wind up with a film that met their differing but no less exacting standards, both are pleased with the final product. There isn’t a scene that wasn’t okayed by both.

In the spring of 2000, after three months of dickering over the script, production began in March’s own backyard, where he interviewed his old friend John W. Gardner in what was probably the great man’s last interview. March then traveled to Denmark to catch turnaround expert Annette Kreiner, a former Stanford executive student, in a laughter-filled conference with her colleagues. Schecter continued to Spain to scout locations, select flamenco dancers, and arrange for two local farmers to play Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the background of one of March’s scenes. In Madrid, on his way back to the States, he hired the guitarist who wrote the score for the film.

Shooting resumed in New Jersey, where March’s former undergraduate student Cory Booker was running for mayor of Newark; in West Virginia, where March interviewed his former doctoral student Jerry Beasley, who is president of Concord College; and in California, where his former MBA student CATS Software founder Rod Beckstrom, MBA ‘87, told of learning his own lessons in leadership. The filmmakers returned to Spain at grape harvest time in September 2001 to shoot the Spanish scenes, and then spent much of the following year editing.

Of the finished film, March says, “It is what it is, and it is what it can become.” While Passion and Discipline stands alone as a creative work, it is intended to provoke thought, he says. This is where its true value lies.

Passion and Discipline had its official premiere at Stanford in February 2003. But a few weeks earlier, before an audience peppered with former students, the film was quietly previewed as part of Stanford GSB’s Lifelong Learning initiative. Following the show and a break for tapas and Spanish wine, March led a discussion where more questions were raised than answered, much like those Friday sections he so enjoyed.

How do the issues raised in the film apply to our daily lives? How do we recognize a Don Quixote if we meet one? How can we tell if he is someone who has something valuable to contribute or if he is just going to waste our resources? How do we tell good ideas from bad ones? “Overwhelmingly, new ideas are bad ones,” said March. “It’s very hard to tell the difference. I’d say it’s a hopeless endeavor.” He smiled. “Although I suppose deep down I think I’m pretty good about telling them apart.”

So what does March do for an encore? Asked if he would consider making another film, perhaps about one of the other classics assigned in his course, March said it was unlikely. His reason was quite simple. “You know,” he explained, “I’ve already done a film.”

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