Article: Learning leadership lessons from leaders


Learning leadership lessons from leaders

For equipping future managers to take decisions in the real world, particularly in the domains of leadership and HR, the case study does not repay the time spent on it. What are the reasons for this failing?
Learning leadership lessons from leaders

From time to time, I am asked (who said educators were risk averse?) to help design the syllabus of a new HR MBA program or to review one that already exists but is somewhat the worse for wear. During one such review recently, I realized there was a major shortcoming in a ubiquitous part of the curriculum – the case study. I wish to explore the reasons this omnipresent aid is frequently found wanting and how some innovative faculty are getting around its handicaps.

PRreach Doesn’t Teach

Perhaps more hours of teacher time in schools of management have gone behind developing case studies than any other teaching aid. Student time spent in preparing and discussing these is a huge multiple of the time invested by the writers. As a recent history of the case study method puts it: " … despite these criticisms, and despite the flux and transformation which has characterized many other areas of business education, the belief in the case method has endured and grown in strength. ... It seems that nearly 100 years of history is hard to shift. Like it, criticize it, or defend it against those criticisms, it is what it is. Except that it isn’t."1 For equipping future managers to take decisions in the real world, particularly in the domains of leadership and HR, the case study does not repay the time spent on it. There are three reasons for this failing.

I have been in several Board-level discussions where reporting on a particularly successful achievement by the management has been rounded off by one of the directors suggesting that a case be written on the success as a means of bolstering the image of the company. This is not the mindset that will encourage a full exposition of negatives and positives which are both essential for learning. The question then arises: why can’t the case writers, on their own, bring a more balanced treatment to the material they access? It is because the case writers will not be given access to the material that puts the companies (and particularly their current leadership) in a poor light. Even if they should unearth such material in the course of preparing the studies, if the cases contain information that is not already in the public domain, they will have to be signed off by the companies concerned. There are no prizes for guessing what will be redacted. The anodyne cases that emerge, rarely deal with failure other than as a prelude to ultimate success. There are no unredeemable villains and, while incompetence (usually at lower levels) is admitted, few antagonistic characters with malicious intent are in evidence. It is like preparing for real combat with just the Salvation Army manual as a guide. Small wonder, then, that faculty scramble to get stories from the media to supplement the cases. But these are like crude patches on the well-researched body of the case and vary considerably depending on the diligence and pugnacity of individual teachers. Based on what they have learned from case studies, many students of HR and leadership build an image of a milk-pure corporate world, populated with executive heroes whose epic struggles are invariably crowned with success. Small wonder then, that even the normal hurly-burly of organizational life is so unsettling for these students when they enter the real corporate world for the first time.

The second challenge faced by case study pedagogy is caused by the 'Good to Gone' syndrome. The Economist puts it well: "The risk for a management guru with a sunny outlook is that writing books praising companies creates hostages to fortune. One well-known title, 'In Search of Excellence', left its authors wiping egg from their faces when many of the firms they profiled quickly proved to be anything but excellent. Even worse was Gary Hamel's celebration of Enron, 'Leading the Revolution', which was still arriving in bookstores when the energy-trading company blew up in 2002. [As] Mr Collins … readily admits, several of the firms praised in his bestsellers, 'Built to Last' and 'Good to Great', have since fallen from grace... Oops."2 The point is not to blame Peters (though he did admit3 – and then deny – later to having faked the data for their book), Waterman, Hamel or Collins. It is the nature of the 'case' beast which, even if facts were shared with total frankness at the time of writing, does not show its true colors till several years (sometimes decades) have passed.

The final limitation of the business case approach arises from the limited sampling of human decision-making behavior to which it is confined. Business leadership is a very small (and relatively recent) sub-set of leadership in general and corporate organization and motivation provides, once again, an extremely limited collection of examples of all the solutions that have been found in different times, geographies, and circumstances to the challenge of making people work for common goals in large groups.

The question, of course, is whether there is any practical way of overcoming these shortcomings and supplementing the case study method with something else? I believe the answer lies in the judicious study of History with proper application of mind. When I use the word History in this column, I also include Biographies, even if I do not specify so each time.

The Learning Nutrients Only History Can Provide

Hume wrote: "Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behavior."4 But human nature remaining the same provides only the base condition, not the justification, for using History as a key foundation for education in leadership and HR.

To start with, History permits us to choose events sufficiently far back for us to avoid the pitfalls of the 'Good to Gone' syndrome.

Some of the authors who devoted book-length cases to the unbeatable leadership style of Jack Welch and the eternal corporation he created in General Electric, still live among us though we sometimes can’t recognize them through the egg that covers their faces. On the other hand, no one today looks on Napoleon solely as a successful General without being aware of the characteristics, decisions and circumstances that led to his downfall. Most usefully, there are enough studies that look at past leaders and the decisions they took from every conceivable angle, both positive and negative. Every few years a historian writing for the general public does an excellent job of compiling these (as, for instance, Andrew Roberts has done in the case of Napoleon5) so that we don’t need to track and read specialist journals containing the latest research on a historic personage or event. 

While one can get differing viewpoints, frequently tinged with the ideological bent of the historian, rarely is the author dependent for business, goodwill or payment from the organization or personage being written about as can be the situation with management case authors or the hagiographers of business captains. The best and most timeless histories permit differing voices to emerge within their own covers, as this praise by Roy Porter for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire testifies: "Gibbon’s 'great work' reads like a chorus of voices; The contemporaries speak, Gibbon’s sources comment on them, Gibbon adds his glosses, often scolding away in the footnotes; and the reader is invited to listen and participate in the intellectual symposium."6 I will not enter into the quagmire of postmodernist criticisms of historical writing other than to approvingly quote the conclusion Richard Evans reaches at the end of his book analyzing the debate: "I remain optimistic that objective historical knowledge is both desirable and attainable."7 Even for non-historians, reading multiple views permits the mature reader to sense where the reality lay. In fact, sifting for reality amidst conflicting versions is an essential skill for all managers and especially for HR leaders. These are almost never available in the sanitized, management-approved case studies or leader-profiles prescribed for management courses.

Histories and biographies that have stood the test of time are the work of the most insightful researchers, observers and synthesizers, most of whom followed a rigorous disciple of double-checking, objectivity and impartiality, yielding conclusions that are of perennial interest and utility

For all our focus on modern corporations, they are of relatively recent provenance and the narrow slices of human behavior that they cover are a tiny sample which is far from being representative of men and women at their most heroic or brilliant best. General History, on the other hand, provides us with a much broader panorama of situations in which people are confronted with challenges, temptations, and dilemmas far more varied and demanding than the relatively short existence of business organizations can. Furthermore, histories and biographies that have stood the test of time are the work of the most insightful researchers, observers, and synthesizers, most of whom followed a rigorous disciple of double-checking, objectivity and impartiality, yielding conclusions that are of perennial interest and utility. 

Take, for instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s analysis8 of Lincoln’s remarkable feat in forming a highly effective team from people who had been his bitter rivals till his electoral victory (and who hoped to be so again), that worked together and achieved remarkable success in one of the most critical periods of US history. Can any CEO, newly selected internally to head a management team that includes people who were her or his peers till the day before, fail to profit from it? And for CHROs, who are often responsible for major organizational transformations without hierarchical authority over any of the key players, can’t the genius of Bismarck provide inspiration while the faults that contributed to his downfall yield yet another set of lessons? As a recent biography of his puts it: "The scale of Bismarck’s triumph cannot be exaggerated. He alone had brought about a compete transformation of the European international order… He achieved this incredible feat without commanding an army, and without the ability to give an order to the humblest common soldier, without control of a large party, without public support, indeed, in the face of almost universal hostility, without a majority in parliament, without control of his cabinet and without a loyal following in the bureaucracy."9 True, these examples are not from the corporate world nor are they current. But is not the intellectual effort involved in the very act of extrapolating across times, cultures and domains one more competency leaders need to acquire as they face uncharted waters and require finding unconventional ways of navigating them?

If the breathless biographies of Indian business barons are to be believed, they are Galahadic geniuses who never placed a false step. But what can mere mortals learn from such paragons? On the other hand, Robert Caro’s masterly and comprehensive (not yet complete after four volumes and 3,552 pages) biography of Lyndon Johnson10 reveals a complex and flawed character. Yet, there is no better guide that I know for using power to achieve monumental purposes when constrained by a variety of impediments, institutional checks and irreconcilable stakeholder demands. It is not only budding students but practicing business and HR leaders who will find a study of these volumes both absorbing and profitable.

Another unique advantage of using history to provide learning material is the virtually infinite range of generality to particularity that it offers. From a bird’s eye view of the sweep of trends and forces, through the narrative of individual events of major significance, down to subaltern studies with the color and detail of a ground-level view. The Second World War, to pick an event of universal familiarity, can be looked at in a single broad sweep11 or with a theatre-confined, though still high-level, perspective12. Key decision-makers who shaped the war can also be contrasted in compendiums13, 14 or viewed in greater detail individually15, 16. Similarly, major battles can be seen zoomed out 17 or zoomed into18. And then there are numerous journals and web resources that can fill in any blanks left by the books. Corporate narratives can never match the drilling in and drawing back choices general history provides. I am not suggesting that a single course should (or ever could) cover even a single event at all these levels. But the ability to shift one or two levels above and below the level of granularity one is studying can be a tremendous aid to finding out-of-box solutions when faced with an impasse.

The Practice and the Problems

When I started thinking about this column, I thought I would be suggesting something new and untried for management and HR education in India. As I researched it further, my hopes were punctured by the discovery that some pioneering professors have already seized the first-mover advantage. Prof Zubin Mulla at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences offers a course on Moral Leadership. Required 'viewing' for the course is Attenborough’s Gandhi and Spielberg’s Lincoln. Even closer to the approach I was contemplating turned out to be the course on Leadership Insights for Contemporary Businesses from the Mughal Empire offered by Prof Srinath Jagannathan at the Indian Institute of Management (Indore). Both professors’ courses are highly regarded and in huge demand, proving the feasibility and attractiveness of using History and Biography as supplementary learning material for leadership and HR.

Just because a couple of inspired teachers have gone along this path doesn’t mean other faculty and institutes will be able to adopt it easily. Here are the challenges they may face and how they could be resolved.

Teaching courses of the kind outlined here requires more than a passing knowledge of History. Ideally, the professors teaching them should have at least a graduate degree in History. Outlandish as the idea may appear, if we are serious about diversity in the true sense, surely some of our management faculty can possess an educational background that is different from the standard engineer-MBA profile that prevails today. Even before we can achieve this marginal sourcing shift in faculty profiles, it should be possible to identify existing faculty with an interest in History and who have retained the thirst to keep learning. Of course, their course preparation time could initially be two to three times taken by a professor with a History background. I have no doubt that institutes should be able to identify the required number of teachers with the drive and diligence needed to master this new pedagogy that would make both their own and their students’ understanding of leadership and people management much richer.

There may be a bigger problem than finding faculty willing to experiment and put in the extra effort. Several professors I spoke to at management schools bemoaned the fact that students today are unwilling to read cases where the page-numbering crosses the teens. My own sense is that the reluctance comes from the boring manner in which most management cases are written. After all, these same students didn’t have a problem, as early as ten years before they joined an MBA program, in devouring the hundreds of pages comprising Harry Potter stories. The best of history writing far outdoes Rowling – at least for a mature audience – in holding sustained interest. Moreover, the better teachers use a variety of techniques (group working, allocating different texts to each student, getting visiting speakers to liven up the topic) and incentives (extra credits) to get students to read full books. If all else fails, of course, there are the movie versions on which to fall back.

The writing and interpretation of History has always been an arena which groups at loggerheads use to establish their own superiority and settle scores with their opponents. If such tussles were to take place in classrooms, all the advantages we hope for would be wiped out by the incivility and ill-feeling that invariably accompanies discussions where History is used as a weapon. I can think of two ways of getting around this problem. 

For students just embarking on this way of learning about leaders and decision-making, the further away our text choices are in time and geography, the less the possibility of generating friction and fury. Hopefully, there will be no descendants or acolytes of Alcibiades and Coriolanus present among today’s students to get upset if uncomplimentary things are said about either when the class is asked to find parallels from India’s corporate world to the comparative study Plutarch made of the pair19

More mature learners, on whom enough of the true historian’s craft has rubbed off, should even be able to handle history with current connects by adding sacks of scepticism to any facile lessons or motivated messages people try to extract from it. As Guldi and Armitage write in the conclusion of their stirring manifesto for historians: "Scepticism towards universal rules of preferment is one vital tool for thinking about the past and the future. There is, so far as history can teach, no natural law that predicts the triumph of one race or religion over another … This scepticism sets historians aside from the fomenters of fundamentalisms ..." What better preparation could there be for budding leaders who also need to take decisions dispassionately and without over-hasty generalizations in the face of conflicting stakeholder claims? 


  1. Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings, and Colm McLaughlin, Restating the case: How revisiting the development of the case method can help us think differently about the future of the business school, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 15(4), 724-741, 2016.
  2. Good to great to gone, The Economist, 7 July 2009.
  3. Tom Peters, Tom Peters’s True Confessions, Fast Company, 30 November 2001.
  4. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  5. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great, Penguin Books, 2014.
  6. Roy Porter, Gibbon: Making History, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.
  7. Richard J. Evans, In Defence Of History, Granta Books, 2018.
  8. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
  9. Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life, Oxford University Press, 2011.
  10. Robert A Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Volumes, I, II, III and IV, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, 1990, 2002 and 2012 respectively.
  11. Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition, 2005.
  12. Rick Atkinson, The Liberation Trilogy, Henry Holt and Co., 2013.
  13. Correlli Barnett (Editor), Hitler's Generals, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
  14. John Keegan, Churchill's Generals, Grove Press, 1991.
  15. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A Biography, W. W. Norton & Company, (Reprint edition) 2008.
  16. Jean Edward Smith, FDR, Random House, 2007.
  17. Dennis E. Showalter, Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk, The Turning Point of World War II, Random House; 2013.
  18. Artem Drabkin and Oleg Sheremet, T-34 in Action, Stackpole Books,2008.
  19. Plutarch (Arthur Hugh Clough, Editor), Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans (Complete and Unabridged), Benediction Classics, 2015.
  20. Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, 2014.


Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership

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