When we think about leadership books, what we often have in mind is non-fiction books, case studies or real biographies of people that have made it in the business and are now in the position to teach us what it takes to be a great leader.
While that should definitely be taken into account as well, a former Stanford dean, now a lecturer at Stanford GSB, Scotty McLennan, suggests that classic fiction novels are a great guide for those looking to improve their leadership skills. He currently teaches a course that that uses literature as a means examining the moral and spiritual aspects of leadership and business.
So here are five of his picks:
1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
McLennan: “What’s so great about Gatsby is his idealism, his dreams, his green light in the distance, which set him apart and make him greater than the rest. We can learn from him how life can be transformed, by pitching one’s life above the day-to-day practicality, above the desire for security, above the drive for power”
2. Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
McLennan: “The novel follows a man who is struggling to combine business and spirituality. He becomes a rich merchant who is at first unattached to material success, concentrating on putting his customers first and acting ethically with all stakeholders. But then he becomes covetous, succumbs to the’soul sickness of the rich and becomes not only mean-spirited but also suicidal. Eventually, he finds something like balance ferrying travelers across a river, providing spiritual mentoring to some, but finding that most people simply want good transportation services.”
3. The Stranger – Albert Camus
McLennan: “Books like ‘The Stranger’ or ‘The Plague’ or ‘The Fall’ — all by Albert Camus — are pretty powerful ways of clearing the deck. These books probe at something even more basic: What is the meaning of life, if there is any meaning at all?”
4. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
McLennan: “Traveling salesman Willy Loman thought he could singlehandedly control his destiny and that of his family, trying to force himself and his sons into jobs that didn’t fit their nature. What if he’d let go, relied on others around him rather than trying to control everything himself, and accepted his own basic nature rather than trying to become someone he wasn’t?”
5. The Ghostwriter – Philip Roth
McLennan: “A wonderful illustration of the importance of balancing personal ambition with social awareness – of balancing individualism with community responsibility.”