3 Reasons why every CEO and entrepreneur must watch or read dramatic tragedy

Tragedy helps us develop humility, teaches us how to handle growth and inspires us

Baba Prasad

[Painting: Hamlet Act IV, SceneV (Ophelia Before the King and Queen) by Benjamin West]

[More on This: Also listen to a podcast where Baba Prasad elaborates on this theme, on the different kinds of agility you need for different situations, and how start-ups can build this capability.] 

Some years ago, a movie theatre in Philadelphia ran a rescreening of Pather Panchali. I remember returning late night from the movie - a bunch of us teary-eyed Wharton graduate students.

It's a perennial puzzle: Why do we pay money to watch or read a tragedy and weep? The Greeks saw the function of the famous Greek tragedy to be catharsis, an emptying out of our emotions.

Indeed, this is the case with one of my most favourite movies - Guru Dutt’s 1959 classic, Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers), which paints the dark story of an immensely successful film director, Suresh Sinha. He is rejected by his wife and her family for being in a "low profession", falls in love with an actress who leaves him, loses custody of his daughter in the courts, and ultimately, goes into an empty studio, and dies unrecognized in a director's chair. With the haunting background song of "Dekhi zamaane ki yaari/ Bichade sabhi baari baari" ("I have seen what this world calls friendship/ Everyone leaves, one after another"), the movie empties you. And yet, it is regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time.

As I have tried to sort out this paradox of tragedy over the years, I have realized that beyond the Greek function of catharsis, watching and reading tragedy has tremendous implications for chief executive officers and entrepreneurs to succeed at business, and to become better individuals. Here are some of my findings.

Tragedy helps us develop into humble, resilient and great leaders

As we watch dramas or movies, or read books, we vicariously emote with the protagonists. We laugh with them, and we weep with them. As they rise and fall, we rise and fall. Much more than the fantasies of romantic comedy, tragedy reflects the realities of human life. Things happen that are beyond the protagonist’s control, and these things, we realize could happen to us; they could happen to anyone. By pointing out the limitations of human effort, tragedy makes us humble. Robert Thomas in his excellent book, Crucibles of Leadership, points out: "Great leaders become great by finding meaning in adversity - in traumatic and unplanned crucible experiences—and then transforming those experiences into improved performance."

By pointing out the limitations of human effort, tragedy makes us humble.

Tragedy provides us vicarious crucible experiences. The grace is that the tragic events happen not to us, but to a fictitious protagonist, and we are saved because the movie or the book ends. Yes, we are left with a sense of world-weariness, but we begin to ask deeper questions about the meaning of life. As King Lear weeps, "Age is unnecessary", we begin to ask how we treat our parents and older people. We walk away from the theatre or close the book, filled with sorrow, but stronger and wiser, especially about the larger goals of business - to create a just and happy society.

Tragedy provides us vicarious crucible experiences.

Tragedy teaches us how to handle growth

The world of entrepreneurship is filled with ambitious people, and the talk is all about growth - whether the pressure and expectation come from the energetic young entrepreneurs, the 100x-returns-hungry investors, or the voracious marketplaces that are looking for the next big thing. This business world believes that we should fully entertain the human desire that seems to have no limits - that we can, and should, have it all. Bigger is better; becoming bigger faster is even better. The notion of a limit to hunger is antithetical to the entrepreneurial world. The unfolding story behind Housing.com’s dramatic rise and the crash of its CEO Rahul Yadav is testimony to the dangers of this path.

The Western approach believes that growth is linear. Growth means bigger sizes, higher yields and greater reach.

The famous agricultural economist Kusum Nair once told me that there are two approaches to growth - she called them "Western" and "Eastern". The Western approach - the one that dominates the entrepreneurial climate across the world today - believes that growth is linear, sometimes even parabolic. Growth means bigger sizes, higher yields and greater reach - year after year, for all the foreseeable future. You grow or you die. The Eastern approach believes that growth is cyclic. Growth is part of a lifecycle - birth, growth, decline and death. The Eastern approach thinks long-term, is more tempered, and as a result is more focused on sustainability, not just of the self, but also of the world.

The Eastern approach thinks long-term, is more tempered, and as a result is more focused on sustainability.

The Western approach to growth often features important people and great companies who rise to great prominence and fall mercurially. Their life histories become the subject of tragedy. Take the story of Macbeth, for instance. A Scottish general, Macbeth, goaded by his ambitious and evil wife, kills the king of Scotland, and takes over the kingdom. As the dark story unfolds, we see the evil and sorrow that results when ambition is not controlled by a sense of ethics. The story also tells us how evil builds a rationale and a logic to justify the actions it takes in order to grow and be successful. Struck with guilt and paranoia for having murdered the king, Macbeth and his wife become tyrannical, killing more and more people in order to keep the secret of the king’s assassination. Ultimately they are brutally killed in a civil war.

Ambition and evil are, of course, part of human nature. But close attention to such a play will warn the business leader of the snares and traps that lie on the path to success. The executives at Satyam, Enron, and the myriads of scam-ridden business disasters could perhaps have benefited by reading tragedy.

Tragedy inspires us

Tragedy tells us that the world is mightier than us, and we face a choice like Hamlet did. Such dilemmas are universal; they are part of the human condition. Perhaps this is why the most famous lines in the English literature arguably are Hamlet's dilemma:

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

To die: to sleep"

Do we accept the world as it has turned out to be, shrug at our inability to change things, and move on? Or do we take on the challenge of change, give free rein to our pioneering spirit, and bring hope to a dying world even if we know we may be destroyed in the process? For Hamlet, it was a dilemma of whether he should accept his father’s slayer as king, or fight the tyrant and possibly perish. It is not an easy decision. Hamlet cries, "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right."

Tragedy tells us that the world is mightier than us, and we face a choice like Hamlet did.

The tribal prince Ekalavya of the Mahabharata faces a similar choice. His tragic story is as follows. Practicing in front of a statue of the great teacher Drona, he becomes a superb archer, outclassing even Drona’s protégé, the brilliant archer Arjuna. Since Drona wants to keep his promise that he would make Arjuna the best archer in the world, he very cruelly demands Ekalavya's thumb as guru dakshina (the teacher’s fee). Ekalavya's dilemma is like Hamlet's: Should I refuse to give up my thumb and be the best archer in the world, or should I as a model disciple cut off my thumb and sacrifice my ability as an archer, in effect nullify myself - not be? He chooses to "not be" because he honours the teacher above all else, attributing all his knowledge and skill to the teacher, though the teacher was a dumb likeness in a statue. The actions of the tragic protagonist in the face of inexorable change, and an uncontrollable world offer inspiration to the entrepreneur.

We can now watch on YouTube with a sense of the tragic, the lone man who came to be called the "Tank Man". Alone, in Tiananmen Square in 1989, we can see him in the grainy video, defying advancing tanks, holding in his hands two shopping bags that mark the ordinariness of human life. As the tanks approach and stop, he stands still. As the tanks try to break the impasse by trying to go around him, he jumps and repositions himself in front of them. The scene is powerfully tragic: One man with plastic bags against a bunch of battle tanks. All for freedom. If that does not reflect the indomitability of the human spirit, nothing can. If that does not inspire the entrepreneur to fight against the odds, nothing can.

So my advice to entrepreneurs, and CEOs, and just about everybody: Grab some tissue papers, set yourself up in front of a TV, and watch a tragedy this weekend. And do it every so often. I guarantee the habit will keep you close to the ground, and make you and your company successful in a sustainable way.

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Jatin Gujrati on Jul 10, 2015 2:10 p.m. said

Beautiful article. Reading it gave me chills...The reason I like Dostoevsky so much and of course other tragedies.

About the author

Baba Prasad
Baba Prasad

President and CEO

Vivékin Group

Baba Prasad, president and CEO of Vivékin Group, is a leading thinker in the area of management strategy and innovation. Prasad studied computer science, and artificial intelligence and robotics at universities in India and the USA. He holds a PhD in operations and information management from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. After his PhD, Prasad taught in the business schools at Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Students in his MBA courses noted him as insightful and inspiring and he was rated MBA faculty of distinction at Purdue. Prasad is a Sloan Fellow at the Wharton School and a visiting professor at the Center for Exact Humanities at the International Institute of Information-Technology (IIIT-H) in Hyderabad, India, and at the Woxsen School of Business, Hyderabad. He has also been a technology strategy consultant on Wall Street. Prasad's recent book Nimble: How Intelligences Can Create Agile Companies and Wise Leaders (Random House India, May 2015) has won wide praise from CEOs and leading thinkers across the world. Narayana Murthy calls it a "must-read" while Adi Godrej says it "promises to change the thinking on strategy and leadership."

Prasad and his wife, Professor Leela Prasad of Duke University, work during the summers in economically underprivileged elementary schools in Hyderabad. They helped to set up Aksharavani, a school for children of migrant construction workers, in the city. They are currently making a documentary film titled Moved by Gandhi. Prasad lives across two continents, has two daughters and two dogs and is a fitness enthusiast.

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