What can we learn from literature’s most memorable businessmen?

They are fictional characters from some of history's most classic tales, but what lessons are worth extrapolating?

They are fictional characters from some of history’s most classic tales, but what lessons are worth extrapolating?

Most of the personality traits that led to the financial success of literature’s famous businessmen also led to their downfall. They all demonstrated self-confidence that turned to arrogance, a desire for profits that turned to greed, and sadly, most of them would never admit to mistakes so they wouldn’t listen to others in the first place either.

Here we look at some of the most memorable businessmen from fact and fiction and consider what they can teach us.

Don Corleone: The Godfather

Whatever you might think of his morals, Vito Corleone the patriarch in The Godfather, loved his family. He was also very good at spotting a niche in the market and this is something which modern businessmen could mimic. 

In the UK, there are currently 10 million people over the age of 65 years and this figure is growing. Identifying the needs of this demographic and filling a niche in the market – perhaps by offering specialist services for those considering downsizing – could therefore be a great option.

Don Corleone would have recognised this need but he would probably bullied older residents if they didn’t follow his plans and his ideas to the letter – inflexibility was always one of his personality defects, don’t make it yours.

Shylock: The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is no one’s role model for money lending and usury. His greed and intransigence lead him to lose his assets and his daughter Jessica and although modern business still relies on moneylenders, they are usually regulated. 

If Shylock ran a contemporary pawnshop, then he should look to the methods employed by James Constantinou in Posh Pawn, where borrowers won’t be asked to exact a pound of flesh should they be unable to repay their loan. 

The borrower is aware of the outcome should he renege from the outset, which reminds us that if moneylenders, banks and pawnshops are too greedy then customers will be driven away. 

J. Gatsby: The Great Gatsby 

A self-made businessman is admired in our society for qualities of imagination, energy, hard work and self-belief. Alan Sugar is one such example and if you compare J. Gatsby’s career with Sugar’s then the first difference you’ll note is that Gatsby built his empire on breaking the law and living a lie. 

Alan Sugar is proud of his Hackney roots whereas Gatsby does his best to hide his origins. If you are straightforward in business then you will command respect while those who have amassed their fortune on lies and deceit will always have something to hide – and therefore something to fear.

Crime and business may read well in fiction, but in today’s world any profits that have been amassed from criminal activity can be seized by the state to leave you with nothing.

Willy Loman: Death of a Salesman

In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman the tragic story of Willy Loman and his relationship with his boss, Howard Wagner, leads to the disintegration of the Loman family. If Wagner had shown Willy more understanding and appreciated his merits, the whole sorry tale might have had a better ending. 

Contemporary bosses have guidelines on how to deal with sick employees and realise that workers have lives outside the corporate structure that are also important – this is a key lesson you can learn too.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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