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Learning From Literature

You might have noticed the seemingly bizarre connection I have occasionally made between literature and business transformation. You’re probably wondering, “What’s up with that?”
My last literary reference was to William Faulkner, that great American writer. It was in a comment I made to my post, Speeding Lessons. The reference was a phrase within – really the essence of – Faulkner’s wonderful acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Faulkner, normally a shy public figure, chose to mark the tenuous, post-war time of 1950 with his take on the prevailing view of man. Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail … because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice and endurance.”
I have a similar view of the leaders of organizations today. We, too, live in an uncertain time. American optimism is being severely tested. Survival, let alone endurance, is the yardstick for success.
I decline to accept that businesses cannot reach higher. I believe there is more. With resolute commitment to the three pillars of transformation (another post) — courage, conviction and leadership – it is absolutely possible that change leaders can lift their organizations to higher, sustainable levels of value.  
How can literature help us in our quest to prevail in commerce? What do novelists and poets teach us about business?
Writers – and I mean really great writers like Faulkner, Frost, Melville, and Salinger – write about life. They write about people, and their pressures, choices, and behaviors. The great writers tell stories that cause us to think. They put a lot out there for us to see … and to uncover. They write in such a way that the true value of what they’re actually saying is only revealed when we dig beneath the surface. That’s when we see what’s really going on.
The same is true of business. The highest value potential of a business is there. It exists. But the answer is not what lies on the surface. No. That’s too transparent, too obvious. It’s what’s underneath, what’s inside that matters most. You simply need to know to look for it.
The value can be in simplifying an overly complex idea. Or bundling together a number of disconnected assets into a powerful package. Or getting to the core of a strategic customer problem with an unique market-centric point-of-view. Either way, once identified, you need to focus on it, align everything and everyone behind it, and shine a compelling spotlight on it.
This is the secret of business transformation. It is not a science. It’s an art. Just like literature. Just like life. It is a living, breathing entity with a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice and endurance. It needs – no, deserves – to be unleashed and empowered by a strong soul. 
Is that you?


  1. James says:

    Beautifully written, and true as can be.

    As a writer of fiction, I've found business people are hungry for insights that come through the hard work of creating clear and powerful language. Done well, writing improves the quality of thinking. That's one reason I love blogging.

    This is a most excellent post.

  2. Tom Butta says:

    Thank you James. Here's another view from another writer, Edward Bernard, who sent this to me in an e-mail. Ed is fine for me to share what he wrote. Ed said, "Tom, I enjoyed this post very much. At the risk of sounding like a literature professor, I might add an example or two (you state that the "real" story in literature is underneath the surface — maybe you could demonstrate that by explaining that Huck Finn is actually about slavery or the symbolic satirical overlay of Gulliver's Travels, two books that even non-English majors undoubtedly know). I also think there's an even stronger connection between getting at the substance of a company or a brand and uncovering what's actually going on with a story or a character — the more we reduce both "stories" to their essence, the stronger the kernel that is revealed. I had never made this connection before, though I use these skills every day. Really nice insight, thanks for sharing it."

  3. Will says:

    Inspiring. Right on.

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