- Some of the most valuable insights into the heart of leadership don’t come from the business aisle.
- Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
When we think about “leadership books,” we tend to think about non-fiction titles like “Talent Is Overrated,” “High Output Management,” or the perennial favorite, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
But according to Scotty McLennan, a lecturer in political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the school’s former dean of religious life, limiting ourselves to manuals and biographies and case studies means we’re missing something big.
Some of the most valuable insights into the heart of leadership don’t come from the business aisle, he says. They come from the literary classics.
Unlike traditional business books, literature allows you access to the inner lives of its characters.
“You see them not only in their work environment, and in decision-making moments, but in their larger life,” McLennan explains in a video produced by Stanford GBS. Literature can “show you reality in a way that case studies and biographies and other things that are supposedly about reality can’t touch,” he says. He even teaches a course on the topic for MBA students: “The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through Literature.”
Here is what might be the most thought-provoking – and most beautiful – business reading list of all time, according to McLennan.
Rachel Sugar contributed to an earlier version of this article.
‘The Great Gatsby,’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The Great Gatsby,” which McLennan calls an “American dream” book, tells the story of a Midwestern farm boy who was driven to succeed by the love for his lost love, Daisy.
“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,” McLennan said during a 2014 sermon at Stanford.
“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. I don’t think that many of us can live at Gatsby’s level of idealism very much of the time,” he says. “But of course Fitzgerald’s book challenges us to an idealism beyond Gatsby’s, by pointing up so poignantly the limitations of his ideals.”
‘Siddhartha,’ by Hermann Hesse
Another of McLennan’s favorite literary lessons in work-life balance and living well? Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.”
The novel follows a man who is struggling to “combine business and spirituality,” McLennan explained in a (different) interview with Insights’ Deborah Petersen this past winter. “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.”
‘The Stranger’ (or ‘The Plague,’ or ‘The Fall’), by Albert Camus
Every now and then, McLennan recommends turning to the existentialists.
“Books like ‘The Stranger’ or ‘The Plague’ or ‘The Fall'” – all by Albert Camus – are “pretty powerful ways of clearing the deck,” he says in the video.
Temporarily shelving questions of spirituality and religion, these books probe at something even more basic: What is the meaning of life, if there is any meaning at all?
‘Zuckerman Bound,’ a trilogy by Philip Roth
Literary critic Harold Bloom said the trilogy – which follows Roth’s fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman – “merits something reasonably close to the highest level of aesthetic praise for tragicomedy.” That’s one reason to read it.
But that’s not the only reason the books appear on McLennan’s list. In a 2013 sermon at Stanford, he called ‘The Ghostwriter’ – the first of the three novels in question – a “wonderful illustration of the importance of balancing personal ambition with social awareness – of balancing individualism with community responsibility.”
‘The Remains of the Day,’ by Kazuo Ishiguro
McLennan points to Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” as a helpful study of the difference between East and West.
And he’s not the only one. The novel, which follows an elderly butler so profoundly devoted to his profession he’s blinded himself to the rest of the world around him, is regularly referenced in writing about leadership and ethics (like here, and here, and here).
‘Death of A Salesman,’ by Arthur Miller
Also included in what McLennan calls the “American dream” books, this play is a lesson in trust – in oneself and the surrounding world.
As he explains during a 2003 sermon, 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?” McLennan asks. It’s likely he would have been much more successful.
‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe
Even if you read “Things Fall Apart” – or any of the rest of these – as a high school freshman, McLennan recommends giving it another go.
Because the thing about great literature? “The exact same book looks different every ten years,” he says, and whatever you got at 16 will be different from what you get at 26, 36, or 66.
McLennan recommends the Nigerian classic because it “helps people see the juxtaposition of traditional African society with the imposition of Western religion, military, and business,” Rimby writes.
‘The Last Tycoon,’ by F. Scott Fizgerald
In the video, McLennan raves about Fitzgerald’s final (and unfinished) novel, which offers insight into the always-relevant crisis of work-life balance.
Fitzgerald follows the life of Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr (based on the real-life film producer Irving Thalberg) – a staggeringly successful business executive who’s thriving in public and flailing in private.
“What we begin to see is the lack of a fully integrated life – somebody who is literally working himself to death, but doing very well,” McLennan says. “And then you need to ask, could he do as well if he had a more balanced life?” (For the record, McLennan says his students seem split on the question.)
‘Jasmine,’ by Bharati Mukherjee
Jasmine tells the story of a young Indian woman’s journey from Florida to New York to Iowa to California in search of the American Dream – and it’s a regular on McLennan’s syllabi.
Talking to Petersen, he outlines the (many) takeaways:
“… how to balance new-world selfishness in personal freedom with old-world selflessness in familial duty; examining whether there is a stable self (or Self) to rely upon in each of us or an ever-changing identity as we change our environments; the foundation of morality in karma, or reaping what one sows; and the struggle between fate and will.”
‘Miramar,’ by Naguib Mahfouz
“Miramar,” which follows a peasant woman named Zohra who escapes her family and finds employment in a small hotel in Alexandria, makes McLennan’s list for its dissection of sexual harassment in the workplace.
But in a 2012 sermon at Stanford, McLennan offered another reading of the text – one with (secular) business implications.
According to him, the book illustrates the tension between enduring values (justice, freedom, and “courage as a virtue”) and things that are ultimately fleeting (among them, the “single-minded pursuit of profit to the exclusion of fundamental human values”).
‘All My Sons,’ by Arthur Miller
According to a 2010 McLenan sermon, we see two characters learn important lessons about where we place our values and the multifaceted nature of people.
American businessman Joe Keller admits to shipping out defective cylinder heads that led to numerous deadly airplane crashes during World War II – and possibly the death of his pilot son, Larry – and says he did it for his son, Chris, who would inherit the business.
“Joe expands his value orientation beyond his own family to think about his nation,” McLennan says. “He understands that not only Larry and Chris are the sons whom he had to care for, but ‘They were all my sons.'”
As a result of his father’s crime, Chris abandons his naive idealism, “sees that the world is not as black and white as he once thought, and he begins to develop a capacity to relate to others as having a mixture of virtue and vice, rather than being uni-dimensional.”