The Role of Humanities in Leadership

"Without the Liberal Arts human experience is impoverished"- Seymour

The problems the world faces today are grave. Poverty, disease, climate change, threats to national and global security- all tests for even the greatest Leaders. At such times it may seem prudent to forget about Art, Music, Literature and Languages. But in Seymour's words above –‘Humanities capture the Heritage of human experience’. Even and more so in the midst of conflict and division, Humanities can prepare Leaders with empathy, imagination and understanding, responsive and responsible Leaders who embrace complexity and Diversity.

In our complex and innovative world, we need more Leaders of imagination, understanding and emotional intelligence- men and women who will move beyond polarizing debates and have the gumption to truly tackle the challenges we face. To cultivate such Leaders, it is imperative to value and invest in the Humanities. Humanities enable us to develop our emotional intelligence and learn skills of empathy, imagination and understanding. These skills have the power to cultivate and enable Leaders in many sections. Scientist can be better at the work if they read Literature, Diplomats and Generals can be more effective if they understand Languages, our Data Scientists can think beyond algorithms if they experience Art and Music. Around the world we can see gains of globalization even as Debates continue on promoting inclusive and equitable growth- embracing diversity of people and cultures and respecting the environment.

The Humanities MUST be part of this important conversation. Leadership on these different issues require understanding beyond that of the business bottom line, it requires an appreciation of all that makes life meaningful and complete.

As Lei Zhang a successful Business Leader said 'The Humanities are fundamental to reason. Isolating data and Technology for Humanities is like trying to swim without water..."

The truth is the Humanities provide a context - the possibility of real understanding- for all that the future promises.

Post the sub-prime crisis as there was a clarion call for greater ethics in business and character building as a prerequisite to Leadership responsibilities, a great debate broke out in the academic world on the values business education imparted and that many very successful people in the business had no exposures to the Humanities perhaps leading to a breakdown in Reflection, Self-awareness and Comparison. Professor Jagdish Seth of Emory Business School lamented the absence of the same valuable education when he said- "Business should be open for Humanities where ethics are taught. Students from Humanities have a fundamental affinity towards ethics."

Or like Jodie Foster said "An education without the Humanities would be like waking up in a desert island with no senses, no memory, no reason... Lost Inside yet guided by the illusion of certainty. What an awful fate."

For those still wondering about the hosannas for the Humanities consider this what happens when you read a novel? Engrossed in the narrative, you are invited to imagine the world from a character's perspective. You think about the interplay between a person's desires and actions. When you listen to Music, go to the Theater, visit a Museum- you have an emotional response- one that connect you with other people, sometimes from another time, another place and with new perspectives to lead a life without Philosophy, Literature, History, Psychology, Sociology is living a life without context.

Only through Humanities can we prepare Leaders of empathy, imagination and understanding- responsive and responsible Leaders who embrace Complexity and Diversity.

In the current volatile and uncertain world Leadership can be a lonely place as knowledge of the past is no more a linear extension, adequate for the Future. What other than doubt, inability to grasp the complexity, the ‘what got me here won’t get me there’ syndrome- insecurity to admit that you are indeed out of depth for the Job!! Why should Anyone be led by you when You- the Leader, are in doubt?

Here is an inspiring poem by Robert Grave that celebrates Doubt-

Robert Graves

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;

I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his images;

I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;

Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,

Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;

When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;

I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;

I in a new understanding of my confusion

Leadership in VUCA times involves Learning- integrating a new lens, a new world view through Reflection that Poetry, Literature, Theatre can evolve. Theatre especially is a powerful and underutilized medium in the Corporate World.

As most Competencies are in the domain of People, Relationships, Diversities, Perspectives, deeply held Values, Assumptions that can adversely impact Collaboration. Theatre can be a powerful medium to enable Reflection through ‘Mirroring’- through evoking emotions, empathy for the Protagonist and his/her dilemmas, challenges, joys, sorrows, disappointments, Theatre can evoke powerful emotions that get the audience to question Assumptions, Beliefs, Values and evolved a new world view to stretch, accommodate a new perspective. Leaders need the nutrients of Humanities to become holistic, caring leaders, wholesome, mature, demonstrating gravitas. The humanities offer great benchmarks for character, sacrifice, and keen insights on derailment and Failure. The Humanities can INSPIRE- Action/ Risk/ Fairness/ Love / Care/ Empathy.

 “Come to the edge,” he said. “We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.

“Come to the edge,” he said. “We can’t, we will fall!” they responded.

“Come to the edge,” he said.

And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew.

Christopher Logue



·        Awakening a Leaders Soul- Learnings through immortal Poems by Dr. Gaurav Bhalla

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