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How literature teaches us about leadership

Cultivating virtue through reading

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April 29, 2021

Classic literature is not where we are likely to turn when looking to learn leadership principles. However, fiction is a constructive way for leaders to grow. Almost any great work of literature is worthwhile for leaders. In my experience, many leaders, particularly Christian leaders, neglect literary fiction to read books that are seemingly more practical (i.e., books on leadership). While literature seems less practical, it is often more useful in the long term. 

Literature helps shape virtue, which is essential for any meaningful or lasting leadership. Good stories stick with us and shape us consciously and subconsciously. Leaders need to be people of virtue and strong character. Literature also helps us cultivate empathy by seeing things from someone else’s perspective. 

As a general tip for reading fiction for those with little experience, I suggest finding some topic of interest and looking for a novel somehow related (for example, if you are interested in studying military history, you may enjoy All Quiet on the Western Front). As you read more, you will likely find your tastes expand, and you will become interested in reading widely.

The literary corpus is so large; where does someone begin? In particular, where does someone unaccustomed to reading fiction begin? I am going to share a few works that I believe would be helpful and accessible. I do not think these are the only works, or even necessarily the best works, but I do believe each of these works has incredible value and would be a decent place to begin.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a powerful novel about an English butler reflecting on life near his career’s end. While he has enjoyed and been honored by his career, he laments having missed out on relationships and opportunities by investing so deeply in his work. This novel is brilliantly captivating and a powerful reminder for leaders as they contemplate their work and their lives. It is easy for a leader to pour one’s life into one’s work at the expense of several vital things, including loving their families and growing in spiritual maturity. This novel offers wisdom into that topic.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar is loosely based on the historical assassination of Julius Caesar. This is one you likely read in high school (or were at least assigned). This play shows readers the stakes in leading well, making decisions for others, and the consequences of those choices. Shakespeare understood the human condition as well as any other English-speaking author, and he forces readers to wrestle with the essence of our identity, how we separate personal preferences from the greater good, and much more. Leaders must often make choices with no clear right or easy answer, and Shakespeare captures that reality in Julius Caesar

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is likely the most challenging book on this list, but the payoff is immeasurable for those willing to invest in it. Part of the challenge is that The Odyssey is epic poetry. Finding the right translation is helpful in making it through this one; I recommend Richmond Lattimore’s translation, but there are several other worthy translations. Odysseus is trying to make his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and his journey is filled with detour after detour. Odysseus is known for his cunning, but he also makes the occasional bad decision. On his journey, he tries to remain faithful to his wife and his quest while also protecting his men, but he also experiences failure and loss. There are lessons to learn from Odysseus by positive and negative examples, and Homer covers so many topics throughout this great epic, it is worth reading several times.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I would likely favor having The Lord of the Rings on this list over The Hobbit, but that is a much greater undertaking. It may seem silly to include a children’s book, particularly a fantastical one. However, I hold the conviction that stories worth reading to children are at least as valuable for adults to read. The Hobbit follows an unlikely, unqualified hero, Bilbo Baggins, on a journey to reclaim treasure guarded by a dragon. Along the way, Bilbo must find courage and virtue in himself to achieve success. The most important thing for a leader is to have strong character, and this novel can help cultivate wisdom and virtue. If a tiny hobbit can face dire challenges to save his friends and experience success, so can we.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is sometimes viewed as being a love story, but it is so much more. This novel interacts with human identity and how we are uniquely created. The characters don’t always fit their family’s or society’s expectations. This tension forces introspection in readers — leaders must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses to lead well. This book also reminds us that first impressions aren’t always accurate, and leaders need to be compassionate and slow to make judgments. Good leaders are attentive and listen well.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Total disclosure: this is my favorite work of fiction. I hesitated to mention it because the novel’s unabridged version is over 1,000 pages, which would make it a difficult place to start. But few other works deal with as many issues as beautifully as this one. Edmond Dantes is cruelly wronged but experiences growth in the process. This novel highlights what it means to hold on to hope, even amid hardship for many years. Dumas also deals with themes of forgiveness, justice, mercy, and redemption in this beautiful narrative.

Leaders often overlook classic literature for books about self-improvement and leadership growth. Yet, classic works of fiction offer inspiration and insight, shaping us through narrative. Next time you look for fresh books for your personal development, consider some of these great works of classic literature.

Seth Woodley

Seth Woodley is the principal Faith Christian School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He completed a B.A. in English at the College of Charleston and an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More by this Author