Fire up Amazon.com and select “Books” from the dropdown list. Then enter “leadership” in the search box and you’ll be presented with a long list of volumes to choose from, almost all of them published within the last 10 years.  These books describe everything you can imagine about leadership—the theory and practice of it, its relationship to charisma, leadership “styles,” leadership and spirituality, leadership as a skill, and leadership that’s “situational.”  These books are written by consultants, researchers, management practitioners, sports coaches, military leaders and politicians.

If supply is any indication of demand, the need for leadership books appears to be unsatisfiable. That’s because businesses recognize that their future is (at best) uncertain without courageous, inspired, capable leaders.  The answer must be in one of these books!

Of course it’s not.  Although books about leadership contain some insights and useful advice, there is no answer.  There certainly is no how-to approach, no precise, repeatable set of rules to follow.  Despite titles like The Laws of Leadership, The Truth About Leadership, and Leadership 101, it’s not that easy.  There aren’t “laws,” there is no one “truth” nor any proven elementary lessons for beginning leaders.  Which is why, I guess, the market for these books continues to be strong: because no one has nailed it yet.  And they won’t, because it’s impossible to nail.

If the lessons of leadership aren’t in books about leadership, where are they?  They’re in great works of fiction.  Great books put you inside the minds and hearts of people in unusual, complex, character-testing situations in a way nothing else does. No other form of expression or study can bring you as close to the thoughts of others—and the thoughts of leaders—as literature.

Think about it. How close can you get to someone whom you regard as a leader?  Not very. An occasional conversation with someone you work for, someone you respect, won’t tell you much.  A published interview with a high profile leader won’t tell you much either. But an interior monologue will.  A private, candid scene between two adversaries will, too.  So will an account of a character’s actions who is caught in a dire dilemma or suffering under extreme conditions.  We don’t find this kind of insight in an interview or by watching someone lead a meeting.  This level of understanding resides in great books.

If we want to understand others, leaders in particular, we want to know things about them that are both personal and unique.  We want to know what they imagine themselves doing and why they think it’s important, even urgent, to pursue their vision.  We want to know what holds them back and how they get past uncertainty or hesitation.  We’d like to know how they live with ambiguity, operating in the tug-of-war between principles and pragmatism.  We’d like to know how they respond when their character is really tested or, to put it another way, what they do when no one is looking.

The nice thing about searching “leadership in books” on Amazon or Google is that people looking for help get a concise list to choose from.  The prospect of reading great literature as a source of understanding leadership can seem pretty vast.  As an English major, you’ve no doubt received a lot of guidance about what to read—an advantage you have over working business leaders who might feel overwhelmed at the prospect of wading into the sea of great literature.

Here are a few of my personal favorites.  http://susandelavergne.com/reading.html    I’d love to hear what yours are.

5 thoughts on “Literature and Business Leadership

  1. This is absolutely ridiculous! There are very good books written by very good leaders that provide wonderful insights into real (not fictional) leadership. Conversely, very few fictional works dwell on leadership, nearly to the degree that books written on leadership do.

    For heave’s sake ….

    • There are good books with insights to share, I agree. I think, though, that many of them lack the kind of depth of understanding of human behavior that great fiction can share. Fiction may not be factual, but there’s a lot of truth within the pages. Understanding human behavior comes from observing it and thinking it through. How-to books on leadership spend little time there.

      Unfortunately, too, some “leadership as a skill” books are written as vehicles of self-promotion for trainers and motivational speakers who’ve been told having a book on their list of credits is as necessary as having a business card or a website. Of course that compromises quality and adds more books to the shelves that really aren’t helpful.

      A great source for more about this subject is Joseph Badaracco’s book QUESTIONS OF CHARACTER: ILLUMINATING THE HEART OF LEADERSHIP THROUGH LITERATURE.

  2. Nice piece, Susan. The aspect of leadership literature that frustrates me most is the idea that the public believes that leaders are able to describe what they do that works. Not only is it extraordinarily complex subject, but most professionals don’t understand what they do that works. It takes a different kind of person. For example, top athletes don’t make good coaches, because they haven’t had to sit on the bench and study what works in order to get to play at all. So we shouldn’t expect leaders to be able to descibe the process in the way that a brilliant writer or social scientist might. A person can be very good at something, but not understand that process at all. True of most of us…athletes, teachers, artists, professionals….and especially leaders and others working in the area of human affairs..

  3. “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” by Jim Collins.

    I highly, highly recommend this short read.There is no “how-to” element, but rather a fascinating, concise exploration of real-world leadership. It calls many of the hard-edged definitions of a good leader into question and, in their place, introduces you to passionate leaders that need not be the loudest voice in the room, but are certainly the most listened to.

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