What Great Books Have to do with Great Project Management

Last week, I taught “Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers” at Portland State University’s Professional Development Center, a two-day workshop for (not surprisingly) project managers. All of them in this class had been around the block many times—very experienced PM’s from a variety of industries ranging from health care to electricity, public works to public education.

In the class, we explore personal and social characteristics that help leaders really lead, and by that I mean rally teams, overcome obstacles, manage change.  In some circles, and certainly in the class, these abilities are known collectively as “Emotional Intelligence” (EI).  Beyond cognitive understanding, beyond technical expertise, what sets apart exceptional performers and outstanding leaders from also-rans is this:  They’re confident, compassionate, optimistic, service-oriented and–therefore–influential.

We use the work of psychologist Daniel Goleman, specifically his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, as a framework for talking about this otherwise murky territory. Goleman gives us a model of 25 “competencies” (his word) to consider, and in the class we deeply investigate 11 of them most relevant to project leadership. We also discuss how to improve in each area. How does one become more self confident? More optimistic? What does it take to be a better listener or a better collaborator?

You don’t have to think about it for more than a minute to realize there’s no add-water-and-stir solution for better EI.  Our EI is shaped by experience, role models, nature, maturity, self awareness and education.  But what kind of education develops emotional intelligence?  I’m sure you won’t be hugely surprised if I suggest that a liberal arts education helps develop EI.  For a moment, I’ll pick specifically on English, on the study of literature and, more specifically, novels.  I’m not talking about a light read with an engaging plot and lots of pages, the kind of book you’re happy to partner up with on a long flight.  I’m talking about an enduring piece of work, something that’s already stood the test of time and literary critics, the kind of book you read and remember, with characters you can’t shake, whose thoughts you remember, whose actions you re-live and wonder about afterwards.  Books that stay with you, in other words.

How do great books make you more “emotionally intelligent”?  By taking you inside what drives other people–their experience, their distortions, their agendas, oddities, misunderstandings, strengths, misgivings.  Where better to learn to “understand others” (an EI competency in the Goleman model) than by getting inside the memorable and enduring characters in great fiction?

We talked about this in my EI for Project Managers class.  I was heartened to discover several of them enjoy good fiction regularly.  One said she recently re-read Anna Karenina.  Wow.  The emotional realities of project management pale by comparison!  I confess I haven’t read much Russian literature.  (I love the plays, though.  The Cherry Orchard–now there’s a lesson for business leaders!)

When we discussed the EI competency known as “Achievement Drive,” one aspect we examined was the importance of believing in the work you do, which is hard when all the chat at work is about “profit” and rarely about “purpose.”  Nonetheless, many of the seasoned Project Managers in this class had a genuine sense of purpose about their respective projects.  One construction project manager said he found it easy to share his achievement drive with others on his team because they were all glad to be building a new city library.  After our conversations in class about how great literature can prepare you for great project management, he said he was even more delighted to be working on that particular project.

As the class drew to a close, we reviewed the various social characteristics of EI (communication, empathy, political awareness), and we shared some of the ways we’d pursue continuous improvement in the future.  It was at that a moment the library project manager handed me a brand new copy of War and Peace. (I’d admitted earlier in the day I hadn’t read it.)

“It’s a gift,” he said.  “Thanks for reminding us all about great books.”

I was very touched. 

Guess I know what I’ll be reading if we find ourselves snowed in which is, after all, ideal weather for Russian fiction.

2 thoughts on “What Great Books Have to do with Great Project Management

  1. My friend was 91 when he died–his eyesight was failing and he had asked a friend to read to him which she did, every day around 3:00, over a cup of tea. She was Irish and had a soothing, restful voice. They were at the Epilogue of War and Peace when he died.

  2. Pingback: marah blog » Blog Archive » great books & great project management

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