An Interview on Leadership with James March

Joel Podolny, who was at the time the vice president of HR at Apple, sat down with James March for an interview published in Academy of Management Learning and Education.

As always, March offers counter-intuitive thinking and fascinating insight.

On the importance of leadership:

I think, however, that the importance (or unimportance) of leadership for the unfolding of history is hard to establish conclusively from the historical record. Most claims of leadership importance to history rest on counterfactuals: What would the course of history have been without X? Counterfactuals are inventions. They are essential to the art of historical storytelling, but they have only modest standing as evidence.

On exaggerating the role of the leader:

I think it is prudent to suspect that history as it is told and believed almost certainly exaggerates the causal significance of leadership.

On extinguishing joy, passion, and beauty:

My experience with business school students is that those who possess an instinct for joy, passion, and beauty often learn to suppress their expression by virtue of a sense that such instincts are unwelcome both in business schools and in business, thereby making the sense self-confirming.

This doesn’t just happen in business schools. Any organization (including governments), with strong norms, containing people in close physical proximity, and having a lot of contact with one another, is at risk.

What can business schools do better?

(1) They could become better models themselves of organizations that put joy, passion, and beauty at the center of their self-conceptions. One obvious route is to bring fundamental research closer to the educational core. (2) They could consciously combat the notion that all that business is about is maximizing shareholder value (or any similar thing).

Great literature:

that even if a student fails to see the relevance of great literature for business, reading such literature will be more valuable than any other activity in which he or she engages during the term.

Why is it that great literature encourages students to talk about the various leadership dilemmas more intelligently?

Two reasons … One reason is that the writings we recognize as great literature have been winnowed from the universe of writings by a long process that has left only extraordinary pieces. … The second reason is … [g]reat literature generally illuminates human dilemmas without resolving them. It stimulates thought, rather than replaces it.

Source: A Conversation With James G. March on Learning About Leadership

Related posts on March:
Promoting People In Organizations
On Leadership
The Ambiguities of Experience