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Blog // Thoughts
October 12, 2006

James March in HBR

There is a great interview with James G. March in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review. Here’s a few quotes from the interview that stood out. HBR: You liked to begin your classes at Standford each year saying, “I am not now, mor have I ever been relevant.” What did you mean by […]

There is a great interview with James G. March in the current edition of the Harvard Business Review. Here’s a few quotes from the interview that stood out.

HBR: You liked to begin your classes at Standford each year saying, “I am not now, mor have I ever been relevant.” What did you mean by that?

March: It was a signal to students that it would not be fruitful to ask me about the immediate usefulness of what I had to say. If there is relevance to my ideas, then it is for the people who contemplate the ideas to see, not for the person who produces them. For me, a features of scholarship that is generally more significant than relevance is the beauty of ideas. i care that ideas have some form of elegance, or grace, or surprise – all the things that beauty gives you.

HBR: Leadership has become a big concern and a big industry in recent years. What is happening in leadership research?

March: I doubt that “leadership” is a useful concept for serious scholarship. The idea of leadership is imposed on our interpretation of history by our human myths, or by the way we think history is supposed to be described. As a result, the fact that people talk about leaders and attribute importance to them is neither surprising nor informative. Although there is good work on assymetric relations in life, broad assertions about leadership are most characteristic of amateurs than of professionals. Unless and until a link to significant scholarship can be made, the thinking on leadership will produce more articles in popular journals than professional ones, more homilies and tautologies than powerful ideas. In the meantime, in order for leadership to generate some good ideas, it needs to build buffers to protect itself from the temptations of immediate relevance.”

HBR: What kinds of questions do you think are important for leaders?

March: In my course on leadership and literature, I ended up with a list of about ten topics – for example, power, dominion and subordination, ambiguity and coherance, gender and sexuality, the relation between public and private lives. Not a unique list and hardly a complete one. each of the topics can draw illumination from social science, but I think they are often more profoundly considered in great literature. One issue, which I used to talk about by loooking at George bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, is how madness, heresy and genius are related. We often describe great leaders as having the drive, vision, imagination and creativity to transform their organizations through daring new ideas. retrospectively, of course, we sometimes find that such heresies have been the foundation for bold and necessary change, but heresy is usually just crazy. Most daring new ideas are foolish or dangerous and appropriately rejected or ignored. So while it may be true that great geniuses are usually heretics, heretics are rarely great geniuses. If we could identify which heretics would turn out to be geniuses, life would be easier than it is. There is plently of evidence that we cannot.

[tags] Leadership, James March [/tags]

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