In his Leadership Through Fiction elective at Columbia Business School, Bruce Craven unites his two careers with the aim of bolstering the leadership skills of his students.
As both an author and lover of fiction, he has written novels, poems, and screenplays. But he also fell in love with executive education. Director of the Advanced Management Program at Columbia Business School, Craven currently co-leads a team that delivers global educational opportunities to senior leaders.
When a colleague asked him about developing a new, creative MBA elective on leadership, the Leadership Through Fiction course was born.
The elective helps students glean leadership lessons from narratives, whether novels, television series, or movies. These stories offer a built-in advantage: “They expose students to situations without having to go through the experience themselves,” says Craven.
Studying literature turns out to be quite an effective and popular leadership development approach. Craven launched the elective in 2012 to rave reviews, and he has been teaching it ever since. He carefully picks titles that relate directly to key aspects of leadership.
“Every piece of content has moments of learning that tie into leadership and that tie into skill development,” he says. “We start with the non-fiction Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to give them an example of someone who faced a hard leadership situation.”
The autobiography tells the story of a famous American leader, a man who escaped slavery to become a national abolitionist leader. His life raises issues that touch on transformational leadership, including persistence in the face of adversity and the ways fear can hold people back.
Craven’s reading list for the course turns to fiction and the cutthroat world of Hollywood with What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. The novel from 1941 spotlights the impact of ambition through the character of Sammy, whose pursuit of success comes with a price, both to the people around him and to himself.
“All students in one way or another can identify with ambition,” he says. “To what degree are you willing to recognize an element of Sammy’s character in you? And how will you manage situations where you confront people that approach their goals with the techniques used by Sammy?”
Students reflect on the stories in a number of ways—through discussion, journaling, self-assessment tools, and other activities. In the case of the T.C. Boyle novel When the Killing’s Done, students advocate for opposing positions on animal rights. The exercise helps them better understand politics, highlighting those times in leadership when not everyone can get their way.
One of the more recent additions to the elective’s line-up, the Game of Thrones television series, helped spur classroom discussions on values, adaptability, resilience, emotional intelligence, and persuasion. It also served as inspiration for Craven’s 2019 book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones (Thomas Dunne Books). In the book, Craven analyzes the successful moves and missteps of the best and worst leaders in the show.
Craven believes the elective class builds students’ capacity to develop deeper professional relationships and strengthen their networks. The course focuses on each student’s ability to be proactive when facing adversity and to stay on the path to achieving the goals each of them set. “I want them to recognize their capacity to lead themselves.”
When COVID-19 hit, Craven was one of the first faculty members to shift the course, which was scheduled to run in five consecutive eight-hour days, to virtual delivery. With 60 global students based in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Latin America, and different parts of the U.S., among other locations, Craven overcame time zone challenges to launch the course. The chaotic and uncertain nature of the times only served to reinforce the course’s value.
He attributes the success of the class to the positive efforts of everyone involved, including the support team at Columbia Business School, and his teaching assistant, graduating MBA Zachary Lopez, as well as all the students, who had the confidence to join the class and not drop out due to the uncertainty of the situation. From Craven’s perspective, it was very much a team effort to turn an unfolding, troubling set of challenges into an opportunity, which nicely aligns with the content that he teaches.
“Based on their feedback, the content of Leadership Through Fiction proved to be helpful for students, focusing them on how to operate with resilience in their leadership as the health crisis developed.”
Craven also has packaged parts of the course to reach more people.
This summer, Columbia Business School and TIME joined forces to offer certain courses, including a shortened version of Leadership Through Fiction, to broader audiences. The six-hour version is broken into 10- to 12-minute recordings with visual support and is available for purchase here.
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