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Arts and literature can break open the stagnant chambers of management education dominated by linear thinking and binary logic.

Austrian psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankl, in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, had identified in clear terms that the real problem of human beings in our modern world is not nothingness but “nothing-but-ness”. The implications of this diagnosis are deep and far-reaching. While it may appear that a kind of purposeless existential vacuum (nothingness) has engulfed the mind and life of people, a deep look at the behaviours, lifestyles and aspirations of jet-setters and go-getters among management students and corporate executives, the so-called torch-bearers of global economic progress, reveals a much deeper malaise. It stems from an uncritical bond signature to a worldview that celebrates and champions the logic of market economy, aggressive competition, linear undifferentiated growth, single-point drive for profits and relentless acquisition of material “goodies”.

The phenomenon of nothing-but-ness consists of systematic bulldozing of alternative models of progress and development in work and life that are still vibrant but beyond the margins. A random sampling of the usual language of conversations in the “educated” mainstream milieu will show an abundant use of such phrases as “great”, “perfect”, “absolutely” and the like. This often amounts to a vulgar display of arrogance that is hollow, distasteful, culturally impoverished - all pointing to a poor understanding of the life-world.

As the voice of the “other”, alternative modes of thinking and living increasingly face the peril of fading into oblivion. We hear the burning question on choosing life from German psychologist Erich Fromm: “To have or to be?” And T S Eliot makes the point sharp and clear in his three profound questions in the poem ‘The Rock’:

Where is life we have lost in living?/ Where is wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is knowledge we have lost in information?

Thus, while the glare and speed of the “Brave New World” haunt our imagination and captivate our senses, the lack of an all-encompassing view of work and life, or progress and development, often escapes our attention and concern. Comfortable as we are with our compartmentalised thinking within the confines of workstations and apartments that encage our atomised existence, we hardly have time for someone with wisdom but a carefree appearance – an aboriginal American or a wandering minstrel from the East. Who knows, he may greet the frenzy in our eyes and the urgency in our body language with a benign smile or a hearty laughter while his melodious voice would be effusing compassion with a note of caution:

Just a song before I go/ To whom it may concern,/ Travelling twice the speed of sound/ It’s easy to get burnt!
Crosby, Stills & Nash

Poetry or literature in general, in its pristine and sublime form, represents the voice of the “other”, sings the unthrottled song of the spirit and comes to us as a redeemer.

What is the role of literature, or for that matter any form of poetry, art and music, in management education and practice? Is it an engagement in abstraction, an escape from the drudgery of daily life? Is it a flight to fantasy, a leap into the void? Certainly not! The need for mainstreaming inputs from literature, poetry and music in MBA curricula and corporate training modules rises from the acute inadequacy to deal with the complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity and turbulence in the business scenario today. The art of managing people is not a matter of deployment of a set of skills or use of stereotyped formulas but awakening and unleashing our creative potential energy in its deepest and widest sense. Thus the realisation is slowly dawning in leadership consciousness that literature can enliven the spirit within, or otherwise why should Prof Joseph L Badaracco Jr at Harvard be using Sophocles, Joseph Conrad and Arthur Miller in leadership courses and Prof James Maarch at Stanford, who delves into literature after a lifelong journey with Organisational Design and Strategy to unfold the myriad dimensions of life and human behaviour to students and business barons before they deal with the multiple layers of reality within the self, the organisation and the planet at large?

Literature awakens the spirit in an exploratory – rather, evolutionary – and in not a pedantic manner, so that we can outgrow our conventional stereotypes of right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. “The colour of truth is grey,” said French writer Andre Gide.

In Indian management academia too, arts and literature are slowly finding space in management curriculum due to a few adventurous faculty members. Prof Manikutty in IIM Ahmedabad, Prof Ramnath Narayanswamy in IIM Bangalore and Prof Debashis Chatterjee in IIM Lucknow are among the few who have dared achieve this blend of Management, Ethics, Leadership and Creativity through arts and literature. At IIM Shillong, I have introduced two such courses on Wisdom Leadership: East-West Perspectives and Management and Liberal Arts to make a move in this direction. As of now, the response from the student community has been encouraging.

Arts and literature help us dissolve the artificially created boundaries between here and there, now and then, micro and macro, you and me. William Blake captures it succinctly:

To see the world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.

Creativity in literature is not amenable to numbers and quantification. It is an engagement in holistic perception beyond linear thinking and binary logic. A sense of such perception comes alive when one stands alone before the Mona Lisa. Legendary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made a sharp distinction between the perception of creativity of a conventional scientist or a high-flying technocrat and an intense and passionate artist or literary genius in his masterpiece Sculpting in Time. There is a palpable difference between the instrumental reason of a pragmatic protagonist of market economy and the critical reasoning of a philosopher or an artist. Perhaps Albert Einstein could fathom this mystery or enigma and advocated the primacy of “pictorial thinking” that will finally find shape and form in mathematical equations. To a Mozart or a Beethoven, violence is as much a desirable part of creation, the final sublimation of which is a transcendental experience of joy and enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not just a rendezvous; it’s also a journey. Every moment in this creative adventure comes with a spark. Every milestone in this journey is as important as the one before or after. The magic words of Rabindranath Tagore come alive so vividly:

My pilgrimage is not/ At the end of the road;/ My temples are all there/ On both sides of my path. (Translation mine)

An old Zen poem on Enlightenment comes to mind:

Before enlightenment, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers./ During enlightenment, mountains are no more mountains, rivers are no more rivers./ After enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains, rivers are once again rivers.

With the dawning of enlightenment, the phenomenal world does not change but what changes is our way of looking at the world and experiencing it.

Arts and literature make this happen by breaking open the stagnant chambers of claustrophobic structured management education dominated by linear thinking and binary logic by ushering in fresh air and new light. We learn to see the world and ourselves with an enlightened perspective.

Let me conclude on a personal note. In the summer of 2006, I was in Europe and found time to go up to the Vienna woods, the haven of contemplation for many great masters. The bus stopped midway, and we got down. Walking a few yards, I found myself in front of a cottage. The plaque on the front wall informed that Einstein had lived here. I stood there for a few moments. Then I walked ahead to find a house where Beethoven had lived. In my mind’s eye, I could see Beethoven in a pensive mood looking for the tunes in the Vienna woods while Einstein playing the violin in a moment of retreat from science. I stood still in ecstasy amidst the enchanting smell of the vineyards, while the Danube and the panorama of Vienna lay stretched in front. Science and arts, in perfect communion, how could it be? From the depth of silence the answer came to me from Beethoven’s last quartet that I had once read in a book by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Muss es sein? Es muss sein.

Must it be? It must be.

It was a moment of Truth – “an instant made eternity”. (Browning)