Have you ever noticed that the “jargon” of business leaders is often inspired, if not entirely borrowed, from that of the military? “Conquering Market Areas”, “intercepting the target”, “defeating the competition” are expressions in current use. This way of conceiving an enterprise and its processes, however, clashes with the outcome most organizations are aiming for when dealing with customers: to make them fall in love and to establish a sound relationship that will last over time.
So, how can a group of people trained to think within the framework of conflict be credible when “talking about love” to potential purchasers? Is the military leadership model still valid for a market that is learning to give value to concepts such as trust, ethics, sustainability and love?
We put this question to Leigh Hafrey a senior lecturer in leadership in one of the world’s most prestigious teaching institutions for managers and entrepreneurs: MIT’s Sloan School of Management, based in Boston, whose Master in Business Administration has always been included among the best positions of the Global MBA ranking.
Leaders of value
The mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.
Mission of the MIT Sloan School of Management
We don’t know what you would expect from a leadership course, but if you were to take part in a class held by Professor Hafrey – as we did – you would probably be surprised. No academic theories, but rather a lesson where everyone participates as the lecturer helps and guides the students to extract useful content and values to enable them to discover their own leadership style. Yes indeed, because as Hafrey himself argues,
Discussing leadership is to discuss values. Everyone guides their life – and that of their group – with a style and goals that are the natural consequence of their values. Often people are unaware of what guides them at the deepest level*, but that does not mean that these principles fail to have effects.
That is precisely why Prof. Hafrey uses an unusual means to “lead” his students to a renewed self-awareness through the reading and telling of stories, sometimes borrowed from books, sometimes from the cinema or biographies of great figures.
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In the course of our visit, Prof. Hafrey advised us to read, among other things, “The Prince” by Machiavelli and the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Courses and resources
Today we seek to define leadership beyond war, leadership in a society where we would understand collectively that war represents a limited and limiting opportunity and should not serve 21st-century America as a dominant frame of reference.
Hafrey, Leigh. War Stories: Fighting, Competing, Imagining, Leading
Given that he is an expert in leadership and a scholar of the historical figures and characters who have best encapsulated its tenets ineach age, we asked Prof. Hafrey to tell us if the tendency to express an ethical style of managerial leadership, which would seem to characterize successful companies such as Virgin or Cucinelli – to name just two world-famous examples – is a passing fashion or something more concrete.
There has never been a time when business was not linked to ethics. The market function has always been to contribute to the development of societies. Aristotle in Politics was already debating the natural and unnatural ways of getting wealth. What has changed, perhaps, is less the goal of business management than people’s ability to develop this awareness and stay in touch with their values.
A good way to do this, according to Hafrey, is to use the power of “history and stories” to enhance personal culture and knowledge.
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An interesting excursus on the approach to US leadership and the relationship between this and military rhetoric is contained in the book War Stories written by L. Hafrey himself.
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Once upon a time, there was a leader…
If we do not change, reweave, reconstruct, and recount our stories, we cannot discover new ways of being and managing.
Hafrey, Leigh. The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business
Narration is therefore a tool for learning and rediscovering our values, but cultivating and familiarizing ourselves with “words” does not just mean reading. For Hafrey, in fact, the basis of every culture – including that of management – is being able to tell convincing stories that include and convey values. According to our interlocutor, therefore, writing your own story and narration, namely putting into practice the modern marketing concept of storytelling, is a great way to focus on your beliefs and contribute to the evolution of the system.
Telling good stories is useful because it defines the culture of a community, reinterprets tradition and builds the future. The image that might inspire us is that of the older folk who gather around the fireplace to tell stories about the past, which may be romanticized, but which reorganize it in such a way that it can be understood by the younger people who have never lived through those times or in those places, but who will root their future in those teachings.
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If you are interested in better knowing better other protagonists of the debates on Business Ethics debate, why don’t you look at our collection of interviews? Click here to get a glimpse.
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Leigh Hafrey and Passodue: the story of an (almost) impossible friendship
In 2013, when we decided to start our independent research into the role that good practice, trust and relationships have in the business success of a company (research that later gave rise to the book “Sales Ethics”, ed.) we chose to start in Boston even though we had almost no contacts in the US but only a short list of names of the people we would like to meet. Among them was Leigh Hafrey, as we were equally impressed by his working methods and his personal profile, which included the description of a period spent directing one of Harvard’s “Houses” where he and his wife merged their private life and work, their family with students, an experience that resonated with our own understanding of relationships.
So we wrote to him, though hardly expecting that faculty at such a prestigious institution would find time to dedicate to us. But as in the best American tradition – where opportunity is denied to no one – Hafrey replied and invited us to meet him thereby contributing significantly to the success of our project with advice and guidance. Since then, whenever we visit Boston we take the opportunity to visit him, both because any discussion with him enriches our thinking, and because we have formed a sincere bond of affection and gratitude. He always welcomes us with great warmth and patience. We could never have imagined that crossing the threshold of one of the world’s most prestigious universities (78 Nobel Prizes winners have studied at the MIT) would have become so natural for us.
* Note: The typographical emphasis of the text, in bold and italics, has been added by the publisher to ease the reading. They were not present in the original interview.