Stanfords Graduate School of Business

Modern Leadership Lessons From Don Quixote

James March retired Stanford professor of business, sociology, and psychology, once taught his seminal course on organizational leadership. In 2003, he turned his attention to film. Professor March has translated part of his leadership course into the lecture-length film titled Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote’s Lessons for Leadership. This Linkedin post is my humble attempt to interpret his leadership lesson of Don Quixote.

But why Don Quixote? What leadership and business lessons can we learn from the fictional 16th-century gentleman who traveled the Spanish countryside daydreaming about windmills and challenging sheep to combat? Indeed, as March says in the film:

“We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.”

  • Don Quixote teaches us that life is to be challenged.
  • That passion and discipline of a determined soul are a foundational element of being a leader.
  • Quixote does not accept current reality. He forces his creative imagery, his commitment, and his happiness on it. He creates a world of beauty and meaning.
  • Rendering Don Quixote in another medium? Think of a Flamenco Dancer. He communicates his passion within a dance of great discipline. This is Don Quixote; expressing his passion with a defined self-identity of passion and discipline.

In an era in which the Spanish empire was in rapid decline, Don Quixote asked two basic questions:

  1. How Can We Justify the Pursuit of Victory, When Victory Has Been So Elusive?
  2. Why Be Virtuous, When Virtue Is Not Rewarded?

For us, Don Quixote, the man from La Mancha is also an instructor. We do not follow Don Quixote because he is the personification of a leader. He is certainly not that. We follow him because he shines a light on three issues of modern leadership and modern life.

First, the role of imagination and vision. How do we use our visions and fantasies?

  • How do we sustain imagination?
  • How do we deal with the tension between visions and reality?

Second, the sources of perseverance and commitment.

  • How do we persevere in the face of doubts about our own effectiveness as leaders?
  • How do we justify the personal commitments that being a leader demand?

Third, the possibility of Happiness.

  • How do we experience the pleasures of life? Not the self-indulgent sensations of the flesh, but the deep emotions of the spirit.
  • How do I celebrate life through leadership?
  • How do we sustain happiness?

Children have such amazing imaginations and Don Quixote has that similar “child-like” imagination too.

What justifies persistence in pursuit of a commitment or vision?

This perseverance is justified because of the meaning or significance that is learned in from a business and personal life of “commitment”. Leaders face both high hopes and disappoint from their vision and commitments.

Quixote also faces hopes and disappointments. But his answer is different. As Don Quixote walked the plains of La Mancha, he had illusions, of course. But his illusions were for the most part not the illusions of action or inaction. They were illusions that reminded him of the obligations to adhere to who his principled-identity. His imagination saw inns as castles. He saw windmills as giants and he imagined flocks of sheep as armies.

Quixote is not driven by the consequences of his actions, at least not in a meaningful way. Rather he asks:

  • What kind of person am I?
  • What circumstance do I find myself in?
  • What does an individual such as myself do in my current situation?

Quixote says, “I know who I am.” He is not driven by traditional notions of success, but rather in “fulfilling his sense of himself”. He is disciplined not by incentives, but by his identity of purpose. Quixote knows who he is and what is demanded of him by his purpose. He states, “Knight I am and Knight I will die if it pleases almighty God.”

With few exceptions, Don Quixote is ineffective in his efforts to do good in the world. When he fights armies he is trampled by a flock of sheep. When he struggles with a giant, he is flung from his saddle by a windmill. These negative outcomes do not weaken his determination. They only strengthen it. Quixote knows that enemies and evil forces will impede him, but he only sees this as proof that his commitment is virtuous.

A Foundational Attribute of Life and Leadership Is Happiness And Joy

Happiness and Joy is a recognized attribute of leadership. It is most associated with Winning and Victory.

Famous football coach, Vince Lombardi and his quote: “Winning isn’t everything; It’s the only thing”. But a passion for life and leadership cannot depend solely on happiness and joy from winning. Life is both tragedy and comedy. 
For a business to sustain creativity and innovation for the long-term requires a “sense of humor” because you are going to experience failure a lot. When you can enjoy the process of failure and the learning that goes with it, you can sustain innovation in an organization.

There is no doubt that Don Quixote the book and play is full of farce and humorous situations. Don Quixote himself is the object of the laughter. His actions are crazy. His visions are unreal. His behavior invites mockery.

Quixote joins in on the sarcasm, but most of the time, he is nonchalant about it. He recognizes that he is absurd, but accepts it as the cost of pursuing his vision for himself and the world. We are amused and laugh at Don Quixote, but we do not disrespect him. Our reaction is similar to how we react to the filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. Both Quixote and Chaplin remind us that life is to be lived with passion. And if it is lived with passion, it will often be comical. Yes, life can be absurd sometimes, but it is critical to our happiness and joy.

Quixote celebrates life. He glorifies in its farcical moments and laughs at its foolishness. He discovers beauty in ugliness. He also gives acceptance for its craziness. Don Quixote’s happiness and joy are inextricably linked to the traditions of La Mancha and nothing is more sacred than the making of wine.

Quixote’s Happiness and Joy Come From Three Affirmations

1. Happiness/Joy in Engagement — Quixote is committed to engagement and anticipates Ibsen’s famous couplet: “Whoever You Are, Be With All Your Heart. Not Piece By Piece Nor Part By Part.” Whether in triumph or tragedy, it is the joy we experience in seeing the passion of Don Quixote’s engagement. These thrills of action, engagement, struggle, and involvement are foundational attributes of a happy and joyful life.

2. Happiness/Joy in Sense of Self and Discipline without Fear of Consequences — Quixote is committed to achieving a “sanity of identity versus a sanity of reality”. He reminds us that if we trust only when trust is warranted, love only when love is returned, and learn only when learning is valuable; we abandon an essential element of our humanness.

3. Happiness/Joy in Beauty — Quixote teaches us that beauty is not a prize that we seek to possess. We try to act so to be worthy of beauty. For Quixote, the beauty that is worth perceiving and defending is a beauty that is invisible unless recognized by us. In the Quixote world, love is not justified by the properties of the one who is loved. It is the unconditional expression of the heart.

These affirmations of engagement, will, and beauty, as well as the happiness and joy that they produce, are critical attributes of the Quixote heritage.


Four centuries after it was written, the Don Quixote vision still contains important knowledge for modern leadership. Many of those who study innovation would propose that determined imagination and perseverance are the core for creating new ideas. Innovation requires an openness to break from traditional knowledge and persist in the face of failure. In other words, to be ridiculous. A commitment to an identity gives you a foundation to positively use this preposterous mindset. For Quixote, that admirable outcome is irrelevant.

The Don Quixote message is about beauty. His imagination creates beauty not only in his love of Dulcinea but in the world itself. Quixote instructs us to find beauty in our life every single day. His message is about an imagination that resists the limitations of current reality. It is a positive vision of happiness and that rejects the vices of skepticism and distrust. It is an inspirational and moral message of elevating the human spirit. A life of commitment that does not depend on outcomes. Don Quixote shows us that life and leadership require both passion and discipline.

To be able to say, I know who I am.


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