As several recent books, most notably Joseph Badaracco's lovely Questions of Character, have pointed out, managers can draw meaningful lessons from great literature and apply them to the practice of business....
I fully agree, and find the mention this week of three great works of art confirmation of this law.
A recent issue of the New York Times touted Meryl Streep's performance in Bertolt Brecht's epic Mother Courage and Her Children, a stunning play whose protagonist is a ruthless entrepreneur earning her keep by pushing a cart through the ravaged landscape of the Thirty Years' War.
Like many entrepreneurs she seeks to capitalize on change, which in this case she achieves by meeting the needs of individuals who must rely on a pushcart vendor like herself to provide basic needs that the war has pushed beyond their reach. Brecht portrays Mother Courage as a shrewd, cynical merchant whose skill at her trade enables her to survive in brutal times–yet who must make profound sacrifices for her cart, which is all that she ends up with.
Also up on Broadway: the current production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, which by all accounts is a masterpiece. This is my favorite musical of all time, and while certainly less political than Brecht's, features a ruthless merchant as a key figure. In this case, Mrs. Lovett, in a part immortalized by Angela Lansbury, is an ambitious pie-maker who finally hits it big when she finds a savory solution for the bodies produced by the title character's madness. Just get this musical and enjoy it.
And finally: a recent release of the greatest work-related film noir ever made, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Based on the novel of James Cain, this flick features the most loving and realistic depiction of the insurance industry you'll ever find. I could go on for hours on everything I love about this movie, but will make my case instead by reproducing two speeches from Keyes, the claims man played brilliantly by Edward G. Robinson.
In speech one, Keyes tries to persuade Walter Neff to trade in his sales job for a stint as his assistant:
"A desk job. Is that all you can see in it? Just a hard chair to park your pants on from nine to five. Just a pile of papers to shuffle around, and five sharp pencils and a scratch pad to make figures on, with maybe a little doodling on the side. That's not the way I see it, Walter. To me a claims man is a surgeon, and that desk is an operating table, and those pencils are scalpels and bone chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive, they're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a doctor and a blood-hound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor, all in one."
And if such a speech isn't enough, the genius of the movie unfolds as Keyes proves his point by using his superior technical knowledge to crack the case. Here's his comeback to his boss, the son of insurance agency's founder, whose theory of the case is hopelessly wrong.
When told "I was raised in the insurance business," Keyes retorts:
"Yeah. In the front office. Come on, you never read an actuarial table in your life. I've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poisons, by fire-arms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth. Suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under wheels of trains, under wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And do you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how could anybody jump off a slow moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we're going to through the nose, and you know it."
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