The perennial favourite “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.
Because some of the most valuable insights into the heart of leadership don’t come from the business aisle – 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.”
Writing for Insights by Stanford Business, Beth Rimbey outlines some of McLennan’s favourites. Using that list (and McLennan’s talk, which you can watch here), we put together what might be the most thought-provoking — and most beautiful — summer business reading list of all time.
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.)
Another of McLennan's favourite 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 travellers across a river, 'providing spiritual mentoring to some, but finding that most people simply want good transportation services.'
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?
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 esthetic 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.'
McLennan points to Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day' as a 'helpful study of the difference between East and West,' says Rimby.
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.)
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.
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,' 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, Rimby writes.
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').
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