Leadership & Management

Great Literature for Great Leaders

Scotty McLennan explains why studying the classics can give you new perspective in life and work.

July 24, 2015

| by Beth Rimbey

The former dean for religious life at Stanford, and now a lecturer in political economy at Stanford GSB, Scotty McLennan teaches a course that uses literature as the basis for examining the moral and spiritual aspects of leadership and business. McLennan says the complexity of novels and plays offer insights into what makes, or breaks, a great leader in ways that more traditional business writing does not.

In this video, he discusses some of his favorite books for understanding leadership. McLennan starts with Siddhartha, a novel by Hermann Hesse, in which a man searches for meaning and spiritual fulfillment as he bounces between extreme wealth and dire poverty, ultimately finding the sweet spot between the two. Written in the first part of the 20th century, it is set in the time of the Buddha but is contemporary in many ways. McLennan says this is a great book for studying work-life balance and what it means to truly live well.

Also included are what McLennan calls the “American dream” books, which examine the costs and the rewards of success. Among them are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon; Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman and All My Sons; and numerous works by Jane Smiley and Flannery O’Connor.

McLennan says other books that would be enlightening to leaders as they move through their own business journeys include the following:

  • The Stranger, The Plague, or The Fall by Albert Camus, for when you need to “reset your thinking”
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, for a helpful study of the difference between East and West
  • Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, an examination of the American immigrant experience
  • Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, which dissects issues of sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Zuckerman Bound, a trilogy of novels by Philip Roth
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which helps people see the juxtaposition of traditional African society with the imposition of Western religion, military, and business


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