Leadership Lessons from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

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Indiana University Chancellor’s Professor Dr. Richard Gunderman explored leadership lessons from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as part of the Kelley School’s Business of Medicine MBA Friday Lecture Series in January.

“What do we mean by leadership?” asks Gunderman, who has published eight books, including Leadership in Healthcare. “That’s a question we’ll probably never bring to complete closure. Nor should we. Because it’s a question that each generation of future leaders needs to wrestle with for themselves.”

Gunderman asserts that leadership is fundamentally not an economic, commercial, or academic exercise, but is rather a moral exercise. And he uses Shelley’s 1818 classic to create an evocative discussion that examines leadership as an “imaginative phenomenon.”

“Victor Frankenstein recoils in horror at what he’s created,” Gunderman says. “That may be a powerful lesson for leaders. Leadership is a matter of morals, ethics, and human character. Who do you admire and what do you admire about that person? That’s the core of leadership.”

Gunderman examines Victor Frankenstein’s poor leadership qualities and their impact on the monster he created. Frankenstein’s rejection of his monster sends the creature into despair and ultimately leads to him killing Frankenstein’s brother, best friend, and wife.

Frankenstein’s lack of love and empathy, Gunderman says, is a cautionary tale for today’s leaders. Gunderman weaves a narrative of “leadership gone bad,” a premise that we neglect at our own peril.

“What if I said love is an essential element of great leadership?” Gunderman asks. “Would you say, ‘That’s absurd?’ Mary Shelley invites us to take seriously the possibility that no amount of theoretical brilliance, technical know-how, or wizardry in the laboratory, can ever compensate or ever come to good with the absence of love.”

“In what sense are you responsible for what you create or cause to be created as a leader? How deep, how wide, and how far does your responsibility extend?”

Gunderman believes that most managers suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to leadership, and he ranks Frankenstein as one of the 10 must-read books if you’re a serious student of the discipline. Doing so, he says, provides leaders the opportunity to rediscover what’s really important to them.

“Frankenstein was navigating by the wrong compass needle,” Gunderman says. “When the chips are down, and light is fading, what do you look to (as the guide) to determine the direction that you ought to be proceeding?”

“Victor Frankenstein realized too late that he had forgotten what most demands our loyalty. He was irresponsible. If the cost of preserving something is so high that we have to forget everything else, it’s not a price worth paying.”

You can listen to Gunderman’s entire presentation below.