Subjective Virtues, Collective Cultures— A Comparative Perspective on Western Business Leaders’ Narratives of the Twentieth Century

PhD Heli Valtonen
Funding period: January 1, 2009 – July 31, 2013


The proposed project concentrates on the subjective side of management and leadership over the long term: how business leaders have narrated their lives and experiences as leaders, what kind of attitudes and values their autobiographies and memoirs reveal, and what might be the explanations for the assumed differences between single leaders, countries, generations and genders. The aim of the study is to better understand how subjective factors (for instance values and attitudes), and collective determinants (such as mentalities, cultural and societal systems, ideologies and the historical development of societies) have an influence on business leaders’ ideas on management and leadership. In other words: to understand past activities and their managerial implications for today’s business.

The focus is on six countries: Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, and the United States. The research is based on a hypothesis that the country and its history and culture have a strong influence on a leader and his or her ways of acting and thinking. These differences have not necessarily diminished with globalization since there are some other tendencies, for instance in politics, that serve to increase them. In order to execute the research and fulfill the objectives of the study business leaders’ values and attitudes are analyzed in respect six main areas that many scholars have seen as significant for enterprises and their leaders: Stakeholders, organization, leadership, success, technology, and ethics. Another important issue is the significance of information and tacit knowledge for the leaders, which is, however, a question that has to be examined in relation to the six other themes. The leaders represent both industry and services. The research thus has the following dimensions: The cross-cultural dimension (Finland – France – Germany – Great Britain – Sweden – USA); the industry – services dimension (analyzing two sectors of the economy); the individual – collective dimension (individual ethical values – societal values); a long time span (the twentieth century).

The underlying methodological assumption in this study is that values, attitudes and ideas are manifested discursively in autobiographies. The methods applied here to interpret the autobiographies and the ways writers narrate their lives, deeds and sets of values are, therefore, those of discourse, narrative and rhetorical analysis. The source material of the study consists of autobiographies and memoirs of business leaders from each country. The collected autobiographies and memoirs have been, or will be, written between the years 1900 and 2008. The project will increase our knowledge and know-how about Finnish business activities and management.