7 Reasons Leadership Is Best Learned by Reading the Classics

Excerpt from “The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers” by Jocelyn Davis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, May 2016).

I’ve long believed we can learn more about leadership from great thinkers such as Plato, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, C.G. Jung, and Jane Austen than we can from most of today’s MBA programs and management theorizers. The idea of learning to lead from classic books may give rise to some concerns. Here are the seven I hear most often, along with my responses.

“I like great books, but I’m not a leader.” You may not have a leader’s title, but you don’t need a title in order to step into a leadership role. According to the American Management Association, the definition of “leader” is broadening today: Many organizations now consider people to be leaders based on their impact and the results they achieve, not on their position in a hierarchy (American Management Association, “AMA Enterprise Research Lists 10 Trends Shaping Corporate Training, Development,” March 24, 2014, www.amanet.org). Consider also that good leaders are needed in many contexts, including corporations, not-for-profits, professional firms, government, the military, communities, and households.

“The books you’re talking about are over my head.” I doubt it. The main reason these thinkers have stood the test of time is that their works are accessible, vivid, and useful to just about everyone. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are quick and easy. They do make you think. You’ll find, however, that “The Greats on Leadership” has done the heavy lifting of selecting the best books and highlighting the most interesting parts. All you need do is enter with an open mind, prepared to consider what these great authors have to say.

“I need to know about business leadership.” Business is humans working together to imagine possibilities and solve problems. It has been going on for thousands of years. If you are a business leader or want to be one, I think you’ll find the ideas and examples discussed here speak more powerfully than anything offered by the management gurus of the moment. Of course, if your goal is to fill a specific educational pail, you’ll be better off reading a book or attending a workshop on that topic. But if your goal is to light a fire—one that will illuminate and energize your path as a business leader for years to come—you’re better off learning from the great thinkers found within these pages.

“I’m a woman, and most of these books are by and about men.” One of the genuine drawbacks of learning leadership from the classics is that prior to the mid-20th century female authors were scarce, and female authors who wrote about leadership issues were even scarcer. I don’t believe any book less than 50 years old can be judged a classic, so my options were limited. Even so, you’ll find here three books by women (“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” by Ruth Benedict; “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley; and “Emma,” by Jane Austen) and several more with female main characters (“Antigone,” “Saint Joan,” and others), ensuring that women’s perspectives and experiences are represented. Moreover, even the books with mostly male characters have been selected with an eye to their ability to speak to readers of any gender, nation, tribe, or time. That universality is, partly, what makes them classic. I do not believe male authors can speak only to men any more than I believe female authors can speak only to women. So to all my readers, of either gender, I say: Read these classic books as if they were written for you, and you’ll gain insights that are relevant to you as a leader.

“These books are all Western. What about Eastern literature and philosophy?” The classics of India, China, and Japan contain as much, if not more, leadership wisdom as those of the West. The final chapter of this book uses one of the fundamental texts of Taoism, the “Tao Te Ching,” to shed light on a higher level of leadership than is revealed in the work of most Western thinkers. Eastern philosophy, however, is not the place to start when you’re looking for leadership insights; it is the advanced course, not the introduction. For that reason, nearly all the books examined herein are drawn from the Western tradition. (For more leadership classics from the East, by women, and by authors of color, see my blog at jocelynrdavis.wordpress.com.)

“These stories and ideas can be understood only in historical context.” This concern is a variant of the previous two, and many scholars will agree. “All books are artifacts of their place and time,” they’ll say, “and must be read as such.” They will, for instance, object to my treating Moses as a real leader with lessons to offer present-day leaders; they will say the Exodus story can be approached only as a narrative whose purpose was to shape the identity of a particular Middle Eastern tribe of the sixth century B.C. While this approach has merits, I’ve chosen another that has, I think, more value for readers outside academia; namely, reading these books as if they spoke directly to us down the ages and across cultural divides—as, indeed, I believe they do. The reason Jane Austen’s novels are still bestsellers is not that millions of people today want to make a study of the customs of the early 19th century English gentry, but rather that millions of people today find Austen’s characters and plots relevant to their lives.

I take it as undebatable that some books contain insights transcending time and place. I also take it as given (though not undebatable) that people are human beings first, individuals second, cultural products third, and gender or ethnic stereotypes a distant fourth. Leaders should divide their study time accordingly, making it their business to understand human nature deeply, individuals thoroughly, cultures adequately, and genders and ethnicities only insofar as they shed light on the first three. The classics featured herein are ideal for such a study plan.

“We know much more about leadership today, based on scientific research.” There has, indeed, been a lot of research on leadership in recent decades, some of it interesting and useful. Journals such as Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today will keep you up on the latest ideas and often will provide a good tactic or two. My claim is not that classic books are more scientifically sound than contemporary research, but rather that reading and discussing classic books is a better way to learn to lead. Leadership, in practice, is more art than science. The “scientific management” attempts of the early 20th century spawned a set of leadership theories that ignored much about the human mind and heart and as a result didn’t work very well; half the business management articles published since the 1960s have been aimed at debunking those very theories. My recommendation: Study the latest research to learn about the science of leadership, but if you want to learn the art of leadership—if, that is, you want to become the sort of person whom others follow—study the classics.

Excerpt from “The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers” by Jocelyn Davis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, May 2016).

Jocelyn Davis, principal of Seven Learning, is a consultant, author, and thought leader with more than 20 years’ success in the corporate learning industry. Before founding Seven Learning, she was EVP, Research & Development, for The Forum Corporation, a learning solutions company that builds leadership and sales effectiveness in Fortune 1000 companies. She has consulted to companies in a range of industries, including Aetna, Bausch & Lomb, Covidien, Eli Lilly, Freddie Mac, GE Capital, IBM, KPMG, Liberty Mutual, Microsoft, QBE, Scotiabank, The Toronto Star, Unilever, and the Walt Disney Company. Davis is lead author of “Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution” (Harvard Business Press) and “Leadership Failures Sink Unsinkable Ship: Business Lessons from the Titanic”; she is co-author of “Forum’s Principles of Learning” (Amazon.com). Her latest book is “The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing).  For more information visit, www.JocelynRDavis.Wordpress.com


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