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READ ANY GREAT BOOKS LATELY?

For some fresh insights on business, try tackling the classics

If your spare-time reading is confined to The Dilbert Future or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you really ought to consider a radical shift: While The One Minute Manager may teach you to think about time management, classics like Moby Dick will teach you to think.

In fact, some colleges teach all scholastic disciplines through the reading of great works. St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., which has taught a ''great books'' program exclusively since 1937, in recent years added a great books program for business people. These executive seminars meet monthly throughout the academic year, with sessions running about two hours. Provident Bank of Maryland President and COO Peter M. Martin likens the experience to his training at Harvard University business school. ''[The schools] have one thing in common--there is no one right answer. You learn a process of logical thinking,'' he says.

The classics grapple with big issues-- leadership, morality, mortality, justice-- encouraging you to think for yourself and (dare we say it?) to develop a personal philosophy. ''If someone just wants to think tactically, the management how-to book du jour will do,'' says crisis-communications consultant Ford Rowan, of Rowan & Blewitt Inc. in Washington, D.C., a seminar veteran. ''If you want to think strategically, then reading and debating the great books is important.''

Still wondering what King Lear has to do with business? Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John's, says there are dozens of business lessons in Lear. To cite just one, succession planning.

As you may recall, Lear plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Goneril and Regan flatter the king extravagantly, competing for the biggest parcel of land. All that Cordelia, his youngest, offers up is a simple, but sincere, expression of love. Enraged by her restraint, Lear exiles her. Meantime, Goneril and Regan join to usurp the king's power. Lear is driven from the throne and into madness. ''Lear mistakes lust for power as love for him, leading him to cede control of the kingdom to the wrong people,'' says Nelson. A question he might pose of his students: ''To what extent can man control the passions that wreak havoc with reason?''

It's not just an exercise in navel-gazing. ''If you can think clearly, you can act,'' says Rowan, who has employed Aristotle's model of persuasion from Rhetoric almost daily since reading it.

Nelson offers the following reading list:
-- Plato's Republic: ''The book examines justice. If I have power, do I have the right to exercise it? Should I do something because it's what the CEO did before me?''

-- Machiavelli's The Prince: ''This is every businessman's favorite. The Prince is a study of the exercise of power. What in human nature causes leaders to succeed or fail?''

-- Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail: ''One learns the power of speaking the truth. King was a man of principle with practical solutions. That is effective in any system.''

-- Collected writings of Abraham Lincoln: How does one reinvent the founding vision and give it fresh purpose, as Lincoln did? ''His sentences are short and perfect; reading Lincoln will improve your writing.''

-- Herman Melville's Billy Budd: War-time law demands that Captain Vere execute beloved Billy Budd--an act that in peacetime he believes would be wrong. ''What do you do when you are faced with choices that are morally wrong but required by fiduciary duty?''

In the end, says Nelson, it doesn't really matter whether you read Virgil's Aeneid or Toni Morrison. What's important is to challenge the intellect. Now, there's a highly effective habit.

By Roy Furchgott in Baltimore



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