Instructor Insights

Basing a Leadership Course on Story

In this section, Dr. Leigh Hafrey shares how his experience growing up in several cultures helped him understand how story serves as a useful foundation for teaching a course about leadership in corporate settings.

I was obsessed with books as a child. I read tons and tons. And I think that sort of became reality for me. I’ve never broken free.

"I spent much of my childhood and teen years traveling. I think what I saw in that process … was the reality that people do things differently and still succeed. So there’s no one right way to do anything. I asked myself, ‘How do I make sense of these differences across cultures?’ And the short answer was story."
— Leigh Hafrey

My parents both immigrated to the United States, and my father became a diplomat, so we reverse-immigrated when we were posted abroad. I spent much of my childhood and teen years traveling. I think what I saw in that process, aside from being exposed to a bunch of different cultures, was the reality that people do things differently and still succeed. So there’s no one right way to do anything. I asked myself, “How do I make sense of these differences across cultures?” And the short answer was story. How do people build a narrative that explains what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, where they think it’s going to take them?

The Sloan population is full of people who speak at least two languages and are part of, or at the very least familiar with, a number of different cultures. In every culture, people tell stories. In many cultures, they tell the same stories that people tell in other cultures. I spend a lot of time in my courses here at Sloan arguing that we do, in fact, share values and share perspectives, and we modify them, reshape them, redirect them, in order to sync with whatever culture we have grown up in. This makes story a natural starting point for discussing leadership and is the reason I use it as the foundation for teaching 15.269 Leadership Stories: Literature, Ethics, and Authority.

In fact, my book The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business grew out of my experience teaching the course. In all of the chapters of the book, I walk the reader through the responses that people in the class have had to the different stories we discuss as part of the course curriculum. I focus on the differences among students’ responses, and what we can conclude about the power of story. In the book, I try to explain how we can use story to manage well and, ultimately, lead organizations to a better place.

Reference

Hafrey, Leigh. The Story of Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business. Other Press, 2009. ISBN: 9781590513545.

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