Dr. Frankenstein, CEO

05/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We're told from many quarters that the humanities are in serious trouble now because of our tough economic times. But it's precisely a lack of grounding in the wisdom of the past that has allowed for such widespread disasters in our day. The greatest works of our most insightful predecessors can hold up badly needed mirrors for leaders and other highly placed individuals in our time. They can provide useful cautionary tales as well as clear templates for a proper use of talent and intellect. By alerting us to some of the more unfortunate tendencies in human nature, and teaching us the genuine need for ethical grounding in our lives, they can help us to draw lines that have recently gone unmarked.

Mary Shelley's small book, Frankenstein, for example, is one of the greatest cautionary tales about success ever written. Her protagonist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, was brilliant, passionate, resourceful, and totally focused in the pursuit of his goals. His quest was the ultimate creative endeavor. But the motives that drove him were narrowly selfish, and he made the crucial mistake of failing to think through the potential consequences of his actions. The result was that he inadvertently launched into the world a monster he couldn't control. This is a powerful image for the leaders and high achievers of our time whose schemes have gone dangerously awry. Federal rescue money meant to save us from their blunders ought to have many strings attached, including a requirement that all the executives involved study carefully the lessons of this instructive tale.

The ancient epic of Gilgamesh depicts a highly intelligent, attractive, and powerful man first introduced to us as a very bad leader who, like Frankenstein, selfishly pursued his own desires at the expense of others, until some traumatic events woke him up to deeper realizations about both life and leadership, and how they should be approached. In the end, he became a good leader and legend for the ages. What transformed him? And how could his example benefit us now? Perhaps this short text should be another requirement for bailed-out leaders in our time.

The Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf presents us with a conquering warrior, unmatched in power and skill. He solved problems no one else could face, and seemed able to attain the impossible. No one could stand up to him. He was strong, courageous, and loyal. But when he became a leader, he didn't see how some of his long-term habits of action might set him up for his ultimate demise. He didn't understand the need for adaptive change, or the importance of partnership and collaboration. And because of that, he literally went down in flames, and positioned his people for disaster, becoming another of the important cautionary tales we have in the great books. Our corporate warriors and financial kings should be asked to study this classic text for its warnings and insights.

When outstanding writers have been asked through the years to name the greatest novel ever written, many say that it's Don Quixote. This sprawling book is the portrayal of an individual who is either an amazing visionary or else a deluded and deceptive madman. But which is it? Should you follow someone who seems to see what no one else discerns and is always on a passionate quest, or avoid such an individual at all costs? There are many Dons in the world these days. How can we take their measure? Perhaps this book should be put on the desks of all corporate directors who deal with adventurous CEOs.

Moby Dick is a story about a leader's obsession and one direct report's inability to intervene. Captain Ahab didn't own the ship. He was supposed to be working for the owners, using the ship as they directed, and bringing home their proper profits. But instead, he took the ship and used it for his own purposes, in service to his obsession. His first mate Starbuck realized what was wrong and wanted to stop it, but didn't. And they all went down together. This, again, is a great image for the corporate calamities we've seen far too often in recent days, and should be one more book on the list.

Captain Ahab's blindness to his larger responsibilities could destroy a ship. In the world now, a CEO or small group of leaders can potentially take down the entire economy. We clearly need more than ever before an extended, deep exposure to the greatest wisdom of the past, or we'll end up with all the mistakes vividly depicted in great literature, yet on a vastly larger scale.

A properly targeted immersion in the humanities has the potential to influence the attitudes and behaviors of people whose choices affect us all. And it can make a big difference in our own lives. So, rather than sacrificing the humanities to the economic difficulties we face, we ought to be encouraging, and even requiring, a use of these vital resources precisely when they could be making such a needed impact in the world.

At a bare minimum, reading all the relevant books that should be required of these executives would take up enough of their time that there would be much less opportunity for continued creative mischief. And that alone could help.