Harry S. Truman is quoted as saying, “Not all readers are leaders, but every leader must be a reader.” C.S. Lewis wrote that the unliterary man “may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world.” Lewis goes on to state that, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” Abraham Lincoln wrote that, “A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the yet unsolved ones.”
While it may be possible to do the work of management or bureaucracy (or, even worse, managerial bureaucracy) without being a reader, to do the work of leadership–work that is, by definition, visionary, transformative, and emancipatory; that is, work that is worthy of asking others to follow with their very lives–leaders must engage in honing their minds in such a way that the praxis of their work (the philosophical and moral motives that inform their actions) supervenes its day-to-day practice.
One of my favorite books on Abraham Lincoln–Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan–describes how Lincoln’s leadership skills were finely honed over a lifetime of reading such things as Aesop’s fables, histories, Shakespeare, and the Bible; so much so that he could, at a moment’s notice, quote lengthy passages both from Hamlet and the Old Testament with veritable ease (and often at times when such passages shed just the right light on a particularly difficult situation).
As I reflect back on a few of the books that have left their indelible impression upon my own personal and professional development, you will find an eclectic mix of theology, philosophy, and literature–not what you might expect on a post recommending books for leaders (nor, would I suspect, what you would expect to find in an MBA course on “leadership”); however, these are the works that have spoken to my own personal development in such a way that, now that I find myself in a position of leadership, I return to them again and again for the way they inspire wisdom, verity, and insight. I offer them to you as my answer to the question, “What would you recommend I read to grow as a leader?”
Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (both by William Miller): Given how much I deeply respect the person of Abraham Lincoln, both as a man and as a leader, it would be remiss of me to not list at least a few of my favorite books on Lincoln. These two books, both written by William Miller, are more than biographies of Lincoln; indeed, they work to unpack the development of Lincoln’s moral compass, by which he charted a course for the entire nation to develop its “new birth of freedom”. If you want a picture of leadership in the crucible, in what Lincoln himself referred to as the “fiery trial,” you could do no better than starting with these two works.
The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann): This is one of my all-time favorite books! What I love about this book is that it allows leaders to think through what it means to engage situations through the lens of prophetic critique: seeing things as they are, seeing them as they could be, and addressing with pathos and creative imagination the space in between. By addressing the pain, grief, apathy, and agony of the human condition, Brueggemann provides leaders with the appropriate language to give expression to suffering, to see mourning turn to dancing, and to “dismantle the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.”
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis): Though it may seem a bit odd to have a book about love in a list of recommended reads for leaders, this little classic by C.S. Lewis packs a heavy punch. The problem with love (as I have addressed elsewhere), is that we use it for so many things, without having a true understanding of the various ways in which “love” is delineated. Here, Lewis gives us a proper understanding of the differences between affection, friendship, eros, and charity in order to give us the means to push through mere sentimentality towards that which is the greatest risk of all: opening up one’s heart to “suffer with” another. For leaders who want to do more than “keep the ship afloat,” this classic shows why, to quote Lewis, “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
Educational Leadership: The Moral Art and Towards a Philosophy of Administration (both by Christopher Hodgkinson): One of my favorite scholarly writers in the domain of leadership is Christopher Hodgkinson. Though his work primarily speaks to educational leadership, these books speak to anyone who longs to be more than a mere “manager of people”; indeed, it is Hodgkinson, more than anyone else, who has helped me think through what it means to be a true leader, and not just a careerist or a bureaucratic technician. Here is but one nugget of solid gold to give you a sense of what these works offer all the way through: “As every administrator knows, the day-to-day activity of administration is often downright imprecise, unclean, non-quantitative, emotionally taxing and painful. It makes demands upon his individual character which call for the exercise of wisdom; in a word, for philosophy in the most ancient sense of the term”.
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World (John Wood): I have recommended this book countless times, and have used it as a primary text when teaching “Service Leadership,” because it shows viscerally the difference between working to make a living (a highly luxurious and successful one at that) and living to make a difference. It is the story of John Wood, the head of Microsoft Asia, whose life is broken open when, on a hike through the Himalayas, he stumbles across a remote village where the children are doing their lessons with their fingers in the dirt. Realizing that what he made in one day would provide this entire village with a school, library, books, pencils, and paper, Wood becomes so moved that he quits his job to start Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to bringing education to the most remote and marginalized parts of the world. One of the lines that always inspires me is when Wood states, “I realized that there were a thousand people lining up behind me to take my job as head of Microsoft Asia, but there was no one coming to help these children.” It is a clear demarcation between positional leadership and leadership that is truly transformational.
The Republic (Plato): In this brilliant piece of inquiry, Plato dismantles the rationale for being immoral, self-serving, boastful and full of unrestrained, rabid individualism. In this text, Plato unpacks a vision of the ideal state, the danger of unpunished immorality, and the evil of miseducation. Writing during a time torn apart by wars both internal and external, Plato holds up his vision of the love of wisdom as the highest end for rulers and the only assurance for a life well lived. The “Philosopher Ruler” is the central aim of The Republic, and, as such, this idea has much to offer modern leaders. Plato’s answer to Glaucon’s question: “Why would anyone be moral if he could get away with immorality without consequence?” and the famous “Allegory of the Cave” are worth the price of the book. What I enjoy most, though, is Socrates’ continual exploration of what it means to be the “just man” and why it matters, a question that should still haunt leaders today.
Nichomachean Ethics (Aristotle): This is one of the books that I read every year for its treatise on virtue and the choosing of excellence in moral wisdom. In his lectures on ethics, Aristotle offers this brilliant analysis: happiness (eudiamonia, or full human flourishing) can only be attained by the virtuous man, the one who commits to doing the hard work of moral responsibility. Aristotle offers a wide range of thoughts on what this means, from practical reason to the weakness of will. Following in the footsteps of his master, Plato, Aristotle accounts for why the pursuit of wisdom is the only path to a truly content life. For leaders, this ancient text still speaks to the need for wisdom and virtue to avoid the pathologies of power inherent in the role of leadership itself.
The Curate’s Awakening (George Macdonald): Like C.S. Lewis, I claim this old Scottish writer to be the baptizer of my spiritual imagination. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, this theologian, pastor and writer has done more for my concept of God and belief in Jesus than just about anyone living or dead. MacDonald’s writing takes some getting used to, but his depth of fleshed-out spirituality is unmatched. He has a way of making me want to believe in the sheer Goodness of the Father of the Man, Jesus Christ. His characters come alive with a thickness that few authors possess. I am captivated, to this day, by the lives of Donal Grant, Robert Falconer, and Thomas Wingfold, and I have longed many times to meet a mentor as honest, true and heavenly as the Godly dwarf, Polwarth. For leaders willing to grapple with the deep questions of life–questions of purpose, meaning, and relevance– it would be difficult to do better than sit at the feet of George Macdonald.
The Book of Isaiah: Caught in the military contest between the great empires of Assyria and Egypt, the kings of Judah found themselves turning outward for protection. For a time, the relative safety of Judah’s foreign policies kept the marketplace busy, the priests happy, and the people docile. There was prosperity in the land as people bought and sold goods, pursued their work, and made their burnt offerings in the temple. The might of Judah’s political alliances were kept strong by the power of the sword and the people reveled in the splendor and pride of their kings. Into this culture of victory, wealth, and success came a prophet who saw a land drunk with lust for power and infatuated with war. Isaiah longed of a day when swords would be turned to plowshares, when judges would plead the cause of the fatherless, and when mourning would be turned to singing and barrenness to blessing. For leaders eager to spend themselves on behalf of the marginalized, voiceless, and powerless, this book gives voice to the difference between “peace” achieved through power, might, and policy, and that achieved via the transformative, redemptive work of sacrifice and suffering in the pursuit of true justice.
Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): I still remember the first time I saw the musical, Les Miserables, in London during my study at Keble College, Oxford. Knowing nothing about the story when I walked in, I left mesmerized by the tale of one man’s heroic, intentional journey to “be an honest man”. Fifteen years later, its grip still holds me tight. This is my favorite book of all time. Its story is dense and full of enough theology that, were books being added to the Bible today, this one would deserve a spot. It is a heroic tale of transformation, a social critique, a history text, and a riveting love story all rolled into one. There may perhaps be no better delineation of justice (Javier) and mercy (Val Jean) than this. For leaders wanting to leave behind a legacy of transformed lives, this is a must read.
As I said at the start, these selections are not indicative of what would normally be found on a list of books about “leadership” (which, in my experience, is rarely about anything connected to true leadership at all); they are, however, the works I return to again and again for guidance, comfort, clarity, and insight. They are works I would recommend to anyone desiring to lead both people and organizations. There are others, but my hope is that this is just the beginning of a larger conversation about the power of words to guide leaders through the fiery trials inherent in any role of leadership.
I invite you to share with us those books you have found to give shape to your own sense of development as a person and a leader. Feel free to use the Comments section below to add your own favorites to the collection.