Practical lessons on Leadership from fiction

Written on November 23, 2015 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

santiagoBy Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

One of the most compelling and relevant business protagonists in the world of fiction is Monroe Stahr from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon published in 1941. (1) Unlike the complacent characters portrayed in most CEO autobiographies, which sometimes remind us of saints’ lives, Monroe Stahr feels like the genuine article – flaws and all.   A successful movie producer, and still relatively young, Stahr is an exemplary boss. Utterly devoted to his job and caring towards his subordinates, he is in total control of his company — despite the many conspiracies he faces — and an expert in his business.

Of course, when the novel was written, business schools were still in their infancy. Stahr’s business education was “founded on nothing more than a night-school course in stenography”.

Stahr is portrayed as a paternalistic manager who won’t let anybody working for him down. He encourages innovation and boosts the careers not only of ambitious, bright youngsters but also of seniors who show their commitment to the company. When Ridingwood, an ageing movie director, goes off the rails in the middle of shooting, Stahr quietly sends him off for therapy and pays for his treatment. When Stahr’s best cameraman begins to lose his sight, he sends him to an ophthalmologist, suppresses the rumors, and then invites him back to work.

Stahr is certainly a boss who looks after his team. The novel also reveals that he “looked spiritual, but at times he was a fighter”. On one occasion he commissions parallel teams of screenwriters to work on the same story to see which can come up with the best result, even mixing the different contributions. Few conscientious writers would put up with this, but what is wrong with Stahr’s approach if it drives writers to produce their best work, thereby boosting morale? In reality, many companies do set up parallel teams to figure out new ideas; in the same way, managers will often try to get the best price by asking for offers from different suppliers.

Another of Stahr’s characteristics, common to other great managers, is his enthusiasm and selfless dedication to work: “He was born sleepless without a talent for rest or the desire for it,” says a fellow character. But despite his many managerial skills and his intuition for good business opportunities, Stahr seems unable to manage a healthy balance between his professional and personal lives. At one point, asked if he is going to stay in the studio after a long day at work, he replies: “Yes … I’ve got no place to go in the evenings so I just work”. He has a property in the Malibu hills that remains little more than a wooden structure on stilts years after it was begun. Aware that he should have dedicated more time to finding the love of his life, Stahr eventually decides to marry Cecile, the daughter of another producer: a marriage of convenience rather than true love.

Stahr is a literary compendium of the qualities required by a successful tycoon: strategic vision coupled with an instinct for business opportunities; a voracious appetite for work; leadership qualities; a profound knowledge of his sector; and the ability to try out new ideas, while retaining day-to-day control. The fact that Scott Fitzgerald was not an expert in management is, in this case, an advantage, freeing his protagonist of the usual clichés that characterize the biographies of business leaders. We are face-to-face with a human being with all his virtues and defects, neither an angel nor a demon, somebody who gets things right, but also makes mistakes: an accessible character from whom we can learn.

The character of Monroe Stahr stuck in my mind. He is an exemplar of the power of management and the need for management. He also led me to wonder on the role of education in creating the Stahrs of today and tomorrow.

Allow me to formulate some takeaways as a conclusion of the story of Monroe Stahr, our fictional CEO, whose character was supposedly based on the real case of Irving Thalberg, called “the Boy Wonder” for his talent and instinct at the forefront of Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios during the 1930s:

-Reading literature, good novels, theatre plays and even movie scripts, may bring us closer to human nature, and help us in its understanding. They may provide better learning stuff than some sweetened CEOs biographies or memoirs. Since management is about leading people, the more we know about human nature the better we may manage our business responsibilities.

-An unhealthy balance between professional and private life, as in the case of our protagonist Stahr, results in undesirable consequences on both fronts. Our families and our work should be both sources of personal happiness. I believe that it is beneficial to blend the two rather than keeping them separate.

-Being passionate about one’s job and business is decisive for success at the helm of any organization –and for motivating others.

Interestingly, Fitzgerald’s description of Stahr confirms that while experience and knowledge of the own industry are vital, generally speaking leaders carry out political rather than technical roles. “Tycoon”, the word Fitzgerald uses to describe his character, comes from the Japanese word taikun, which literally means “great lord” or “supreme commander”.


(1) Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of The Last Tycoon, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1993)


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