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May 19, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Stanford's Jim March sees Don Quixote as a model for business leaders Stanford's Jim March sees Don Quixote as a model for business leaders (May 19, 2004)

** New documentary will air Tuesday, May 25, at 8 p.m. on KCSM.

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

Jim March knows how to get you thinking.

Try this for a teaching hook: Don Quixote had what it takes to be a great leader.

Ridiculous? Not when you really think about it.

The knight-errant hero of one of the great classics of literature showed the key ingredients of leadership in his quests for adventure and grievances to redress, says Dr. March, an emeritus professor of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Don Quixote had imagination, passion, commitment, discipline, and joy; he just wasn't connected to the real world.

This disconnect between the noble actions of the famous Spanish knight and reality has kept his story alive for 400 years. What school child doesn't connect -- somehow -- with the vision of the addled knight on his scrawny horse tilting at windmills or -- equally disastrously -- charging a flock of sheep in the unshakeable belief they were an enemy army.

This disconnect has also been fodder for one of Dr. March's most popular courses, which has now been made into a documentary film produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership" will air on KCSM Channel 60 next week, on Tuesday, May 25, at 8 p.m.; Thursday, May 27, at 11 p.m.; and Monday, May 31, at midnight. The film, which was produced with filmmaker Steven Schecter, has already shown on PBS in Los Angeles and may turn up on other PBS stations around the country.

"It was great fun," Dr. March says in an interview at the Sequoias in Portola Valley, where he lives with his wife, Jayne. "It was a new medium for me. I learned a lot."

The film is indeed a mind-stretcher, as it jumps between the vineyards of La Mancha and venues of Stanford and Silicon Valley. Film clips of President Johnson, Bill Gates, Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc, Kenneth Lay of Enron, and Charlie Chaplin alternate with shots from old movies of Don Quixote confronting sheep, peasant women, traders, and windmills.

Pictures of the knight crashing off his horse, paired with photos of early innovative airplanes taking off and then collapsing into rubble, remind us that leaders and innovators have more failures than successes.

This comic mayhem provides lessons, and warnings, about leadership and its pitfalls from Dr. March, the late John Gardner, and others.

Most new ideas are crazy, Dr. March notes. "Most of the time you will fall on your face. Society needs that.

"What was important to Don Quixote was his sense of himself," Dr. March emphasizes. "Consequences were secondary to him. What was important was being a proper knight errant."

"Passion and Discipline" grew out of a popular course on leadership in organizations that Dr. March taught for 15 years at Stanford. Three hundred or more students would crowd the lecture hall for a course that had a reading list including Shakespeare's "Othello," Shaw's "St. Joan," Tolstoy's "War and Peace," and Cervantes' "Don Quixote." One third were business students, he says.

It's straight-forward to teach practical things, like organization, negotiating, analyzing problems, and making sensible decisions, Dr. March explains. Other things -- like boundaries between public and private life -- are tied up in the basic issues of life. "These issues are better addressed in great literature than in modern textbooks," he says.

Dr. March seeks to go beyond the conventional business model, where plans are justified by the expected consequences, into Don Quixote's world, ruled by vision and a strong sense of self. "I always give a footnote in California," he adds. "Don Quixote's sense of himself was not self-indulgent; it was not me-me-me. He wanted to be a proper knight errant" -- which involves discipline and commitment.

Dr. March concludes his film: "A life of leadership requires passion and discipline -- being able to say 'I know who I am.'"

Before Don Quixote

Dr. March brings huge experience, with honors, books, and even poetry, to his vision of leadership. A native of Wisconsin, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1949, after a stint in the Army occupying Japan. He earned master's and Ph.D. degrees in political science from Yale University.

Dr. March served on the faculty of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), before leaving to help found the University of California at Irvine, where he was dean of the School of Social Sciences. He came to Stanford in 1970, where he held several endowed professorships in political science, higher education and management.

Best known for his work on organizations and decision-making, Dr. March has collaborated on at least 20 books, some of which appear in 13 languages. His honors fill most of a single-space page. If not a knight errant like his hero, he is still a real knight; in 1995, he was made Knight First Class by King Harald of Norway.

Dr. March, who is in Finland this week, is a Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland.

What next? Dr. March hesitates, and mentions "War and Peace," and possibly Cosimo de Medici, whose business model was built on networking.


"Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote's Lessons for Leadership" will air on KCSM Channel 60 on Tuesday, May 25, at 8 p.m.; Thursday, May 27, at 11 p.m.; and Monday, May 31, at midnight.

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