In Leadership

Leadership lessons can be found in a variety of sources, including fiction. The article below shares three novels whose key takeaways may make you a better leader. CK

Article written by Jessica Stillman originally appeared in on June 2, 2020.

The coronavirus has presented business leaders with tons of tough logistical questions: Should I take PPP money? When should I reopen? Will I have to lay off staff? But it has also presented softer, more human questions, too, like how are my people coping, how can I best support them, and what kind of world do I want to build when all this is over?

To answer those first questions, you might look to business school experts. And, according to at least one of those experts, for the second type of question, you should look to literature.

Novels and plays, Stanford business school professor Scotty McLennan told Stanford Insights, help “us get deep into the minds and hearts of people, and that’s important during a crisis like Covid-19, because we see the human condition laid bare. We see the character of people and the interaction of all the different forces in society. I think it’s one of the best ways to find help.”

Science agrees with him that literature is an exceptional EQ booster, but which novels should you read to help you navigate the current crisis? McLennan offers three suggestions:

1. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

What does a novel about pioneers in Nebraska have to teach modern leaders about dealing with a pandemic? McLennan argues the story’s main character, a plucky entrepreneur trying to save her family farm, is an excellent model for today’s business owners.

“She has a future-oriented way of thinking about how that could become a more rich land that would benefit not only her and the Midwest but the whole country,” he says. “She exercises substantial leadership to bring people together and does it in the face of resistance from her two brothers, who think a woman can’t really figure this out. She’s a wonderful example of the best of the American spirit.”

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Maybe you had to read this one back in high school, but McLennan feels you should pick it up again not for its searing portrait of an age of vast inequality, but because it was set just after the 1918 flu pandemic.

“Many people just felt so ravaged by what it had done to their families and communities that they just wanted to forget and move on,” he says of the 1918 flu. “It’s important to take two lessons from that. One is hope, because there will be a better day when we look back on this whole era. Second is the question of where we go from here. How are we going to be different and act differently with each other?”

3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

This slim novella tackles a weighty, and sadly very topical, subject: how the proximity of death pushes people to rethink their lives. “At a time like this, death is very much present, and when you understand that I think you live a better and fuller life. You appreciate what really matters,” explains McLennan.

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