Yesterday, August 30th, was national Frankenstein Day. It is the unofficial holiday that celebrates the life and times of English author Mary Shelley who wrote one of the world’s most read monster novels, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. This year also marks the 200-year anniversary of the publication of the novel’s first edition. Due to the mores of the times, Mary Shelley was not listed as the author in the first edition but was listed as the author in subsequent editions.
The story of Shelley’s creation of the book is equally fantastic. During the rainy summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 18, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until dawn.
Shelley later noted that sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, he proposed that they “each write a ghost story”. During one evening in the middle of summer, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. Shelley came up with the idea that a corpse would be re-animated and from this sprang the story of Frankenstein.
While the book is much different from the movie, most people are more familiar with the movie. In it the good doctor, Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with this re-animation of life. He and his trusted servant Igor use electricity to bring back an executed prisoner to life. The re-animated man is known as “The Monster” and was played with great pathos by Boris Karloff. He was mute in the first movie but spoke in subsequent films. The Monster is mis-understood, then tormented to the point he strikes out the only way he knows, through violence. The most touching scene is his inadvertent drowning of a young girl Maria, with whom he is playing. The most horrific is his attack on Dr. Frankenstein’s wife on their wedding day.
Maria’s father arrives, carrying his daughter’s body. The villagers form a search party to capture the creature, determined to meet out revenge. They search for The Monster and during the search Dr. Frankenstein becomes separated from the group and is discovered by the creature, who attacks him. The Monster knocks Dr. Frankenstein unconscious and carries him off to an old mill and is thrown from the top by The Monster. Miraculously, Dr. Frankenstein’s fall is broken by the vanes of the windmill. The mob of villagers set the windmill ablaze, killing the entrapped Monster inside (at least until the sequel).
In honor of Frankenstein Day, I want to consider the leadership lessons of Dr. Victor Frankenstein or really the lack of leadership by the good doctor which led to the deaths of a small child, his brother and the rape of his wife-to-be on her wedding day. Of course it also led to the unleashing of his Monster, technically called Frankenstein’s Monster, upon the movie going world for years to come.
In a lecture at Indiana University’s Kelley School’s Business of Medicine, Dr. Richard Gunderman explored leadership lessons of Frankenstein. Gunderman began by asking, “What do we mean by leadership?” He went on to add, “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 asserted that leadership is fundamentally not an economic, commercial, or academic exercise, but is rather a moral exercise. He said, “Victor Frankenstein recoils in horror at what he’s created. 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 went on to pose the question “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 had another interesting insight about this lack of love and empathy for his own creation by the doctor where he said it was “a cautionary tale for today’s leaders, as it weaves a narrative of “leadership gone bad”.” Gunderman then asked, “What if I said love is an essential element of great leadership?” You might respond as Gunderman did rhetorically “Would you say, “That’s absurd?”” But he then went on to note, “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.”
Gunderman concluded his remarks by noting, “Frankenstein was navigating by the wrong compass needle.” For Gunderman he challenged business leaders with the following, “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?” He concluded by stating, “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.”
I hope you will consider just how impactful you can be as a leader, such as a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), or that your Chief Executive Officer (CEO) can be. Recall that Wells Fargo’s downfall started with a simple ditty “Eight is Great” by the Bank’s President. That alone led to a marketing campaign where the Bank tried to sell (fraudulently or not) eight banking products or services to every customer and all employees were judged on this maxim.
You might also think about Mary Shelley on those dark nights on Lake Geneva. She gave us all a gift that still resonates 200 years later.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018