• Deborah Yaffe

The Austen MBA

We all read Jane Austen for different reasons. (I wrote a whole book about this phenomenon.) Some read her for the lucidity of her language. Others read her for the vividness of her characterizations. And still others read her for the excellence of her insights into business management.


Or so we’re apparently supposed to conclude from a recent piece in Psychology Today that discussed the literary interests of Peter Drucker, the revered twentieth-century guru of management consulting.


The piece, by business writer and editor Bruce Rosenstein, opens with a list of key takeaways, among them the unintentionally hilarious news that “Drucker made it a habit to regularly read books, despite his demanding schedule.” (He read books? OMG! What a concept!)


Drucker—what a visionary!--thought other people should read books, too: “In 1996, Drucker and other thought leaders provided brief lists of reading recommendations for leaders,” writes Rosenstein, whose attitude toward his subject may be inferred from his authorship of a book subtitled How Peter Drucker's Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life.


Two novels made Drucker’s list of recommended reading: Middlemarch, chosen for the insights it offers into the social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution; and Pride and Prejudice.


Now, Pride and Prejudice is a sublime work of fiction, and reading it can enrich any life. But I can’t say I fully understand why Drucker thinks leaders, in particular, ought to read it. And the explanation Rosestein quotes from a 1999 interview with Drucker doesn’t clarify matters much.


Asked what Austen novel a manager should start with, Drucker replied, “Any Jane Austen novel will do, since every Jane Austen heroine is a better manager and executive than any American CEO."


It’s true that some of Austen’s heroines—think Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Emma Woodhouse, or even Fanny Price--skillfully deploy kindness and tact as they accommodate difficult friends and relations. And Elizabeth Bennet is pretty good at setting personal boundaries, at least when it comes to unpleasant people like Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine. If all that counts as being an effective “manager and executive”—rather than just, you know, a woman--then I guess these Austen heroines qualify.


But “every Jane Austen heroine”? I don’t think I’d want to buy stock in a company run by VP Catherine Morland or CEO Marianne Dashwood.


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