Miguel de Cervantes. 2003. Don Quixote. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. Translated by Edith Grossman.
When I first encountered Don Quixote, I thought that a manager or entrepreneur could not possibly learn anything from this lunatic Spaniard. But on reflection I realized that Don Quixote provides some valuable insights into leadership and the challenge of dealing emotionally with the uncertainties inherent in any new venture. Let me briefly summarize the book:
Alonso Quixano, an unmarried retired country gentleman, has become addicted to reading fictional accounts of chivalrous knights who allegedly secured peace, justice, and prosperity for medieval society and were rewarded with great social prestige and extraordinarily beautiful maidens. Not realizing these knight tales are fictional, he commits himself to fight the evils in his native land by becoming a knight-errant, renaming himself Don Quixote. The book documents his adventures that invariably lead to failure and ridicule. Except for his neighbor Sancho Panza, who becomes Don Quixote’s squire, everybody realizes that Don Quixote is mad. His imagination transforms the real world into the fantasyland of a medieval knight: His castle is a commonplace inn, his ladylove—a peasant woman once met many years ago. The invading armies are flocks of sheep. The giants he attacks are just windmills.
There are two main lessons in the book: one for leaders and one for entrepreneurs.
A great vision is not sufficient to be successful. Without a good grasp of reality, you cannot make vision come true. But when you are an ultra-realist as Sancho is, you cannot inspire anyone to follow you. Don Quixote is able to lead and later keep Sancho from defecting in the wake of constant setbacks precisely because Don Quixote has no doubt that his vision is right and that they will succeed in the end. Sancho cannot take over this leadership role from Don Quixote because he lacks the ability to imagine a different future. Therefore, to become effective leaders we also need to cultivate the imagination. When I help organizations develop their leadership, I will put more emphasis on the need to recruit skills to imagine a new future as well as skills to develop and execute the current strategy. Those skills don’t need to coincide in the same person.
The second key insight from the book for me is that we can deal much better with failure when we take on a job because we truly want to spend our lives in this line of work. Failure will almost certainly occur in some form for entrepreneurs, and in this book, Don Quixote repeatedly fails as a knight-errant. Someone with little commitment to their work would perceive these setbacks as a reason to abandon the quest, but Don Quixote simply sees them as the cost of becoming who he wants to be. As entrepreneurs, we had better not start a new business just for the money! When I recruit people in my organization for important jobs, I need to make sure that they are not doing it just to increase their paychecks.