Sometimes, the best inspiration for leaders comes from the least likely sources. When looking for examples of excellent leadership, many people turn to past presidents, industry moguls, and military generals. While these individuals have much to teach us, inspiring, thought-provoking lessons can also come from literature. Below are some great novels for business leaders to read if they want to become more effective at the helm of their company.
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
The novel Siddhartha tells the story of the Buddha, the man whose teachings evolved into the Buddhist religion. As a young man, Siddhartha realized a great deal of success and became a wealthy merchant. He focused on the needs of his customers and always put ethics first. Over time, however, he grew greedier, and his spirit suffered until he contemplated killing himself. Forsaking his former life, he goes on a quest to find balance and ends up working as a ferryman carrying people across a river. While some come for spiritual guidance, many simply want transportation and are happy to have reliable service. What Hesse’s novel teaches us is the importance of balance in our lives. When we let work consume us, we lose sight of what really matters. When we step back, we begin to see what matters to us and to our customers. This sort of vision is crucial for good business leadership.
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
To many people, The Remains of the Day is a crucial study in the cultural differences between the East and the West. For this reason alone, it can prove an important lesson in cultural sensitivity and communication. However, the story has a deeper meaning for business leaders. The novel tells the story of an old butler who is unwaveringly committed to his job. The problem is that he forgets about the world around him—and even his own hopes and dreams—in his service. Like Siddhartha, this novel reminds leaders to look at the bigger picture and place work in its proper context. However, this novel is also about the importance of keeping in touch with the wider world, and not letting duty or convention get in the way of acting ethically, morally, and with authenticity.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus
The link between existentialism and leadership is not immediately apparent, but leaders have a great deal to learn from philosophers like Camus. When working through The Stranger, it’s important not to get caught up in the sticky questions about spirituality and religion and instead focus on the most basic issue the book addresses: the meaning of life. What connects us as human beings? Leaders who ask themselves this question are able to empathize with their colleagues, employees, and customers in a whole new way. For business leaders, it is critical to always keep the human perspective in mind.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The connection between The Great Gatsby and leadership is probably readily apparent to people familiar with the story. The novel is, at heart, all about integrity. Jay Gatsby is a popular socialite who looks like he has everything together from the outside. However, he made his money illegally and he has no real friends. Ultimately, his wealth and extravagance are an attempt to both impress his former lover and distract himself from the pain of losing her. Leaders must have integrity if they want the respect, trust, and support of the people around them.
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
While this novel is widely hated by high school students, it is actually an important book for business leaders to revisit. The story underscores the importance of staying true to oneself. When Hester Prynne is condemned for a single indiscretion from her younger years, she chooses not to try to reintegrate with the Puritans who have condemned her, nor does she go into a downward spiral. Instead, she builds a new life dedicated to helping the people around her. Rather than denying her mistake, she accepted the consequences and grew from the experience. This is a key lesson for leaders.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
The first novel in the Narnia series, this book tells the story of four siblings who stumble into another world through a mysterious portal, help rescue the inhabitants from an evil witch, and become kings and queens. The children are forced to mature quickly and grow into their leadership roles to deal with some incredible challenges and several ethical dilemmas. The book has a lot to say about the decision-making process and the value of mentors in choosing the right path, as well as the importance of owning one’s mistakes. While the book is written for children, business leaders will find a number of important lessons contained within it.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Another high school classic, The Grapes of Wrath takes on a different tone when read by people in a leadership role. The book follows the Joad family and looks at the fallout of the Great Depression. When a drought destroys the Joad’s land, they decide to move to California to look for new jobs. While things do not always go as planned, the family continues to adapt and figure out how to make things work. The leader’s path often resembles the journey of the Joad family. Unexpected things happen, and leaders must be present to guide a steady course and adapt to new landscapes.