Great Novels with Important Lessons for Leaders

shelved under Expert Opinions, Business, and Fiction

For years, I thought that if I could teach a class on leadership, I would build a syllabus based on some of my favorite books, all of which highlight various struggles and decisions leaders face better than any business primer. And wouldn't you know it: the day came when I did teach a class on leadership. Graduate level, at that!

Fun stuff.

The best thing about my list, I think, is that these are good books with compelling storylines, interesting characters, and relatable lessons. Because to let you in on a little secret, I don't like most business books. There's the outrageously out-of-whack fluff-to-goodness ratio, yes, but there's also something else: business books try and spoon feed me their lessons. Sorry, folks. I'm not in grade school anymore. Spoon feeding doesn't work. 

For my adult brain, I need to be presented a problem and then given the tools to work through it... and the books that give me what I need aren't business books. Here's my list:


The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara

Historical fiction at the Battle of Gettysburg. The book provides multiple first-person perspectives on the action, and the lack of a omniscient narrator helps the reader grasp the open ended and messy nature of the communications and decisions leaders are faced with. This compelling story also weaves the human element into the battle, leaving readers struggling themselves with the notions of loyalty and courage.

This book also appears on Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction


Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis

"Before we were a nation of laws, we were a nation of men." That one sentence says it all: systems, hierarchies, and nations rise and fall based on the character of those who build them. The interwoven stories of America's birth are extraordinary and inspiring in equal measure. This book should be read by everyone, especially today, when faith in our government has ebbed so dramatically. This book will remind you of what it's all about.

This book also appears on Facing Unpleasant Facts (And Fictions)


The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, Robin Buss

First an foremost, a fantastic story in both the full and abridged versions. Also, a study in what it means to have character: Dumas explores both the corrosive impact of petty and unethical indiscretions, as well as the awesome power born from personal responsibility. The revenge theme keeps the main character human.


The Prophet

by Kahlil Gibran

A must-read. Gibran had another book, too, called "The Madman," which was written in the same style as "How to Self-Destruct." Whichever you get your hands on, Gibran is better than anyone at showing what it means to be a mensch.



by James Clavell

Want to know what politics look like in the real world? This is it. Set in feudal Japan in 1600, this saga uses an epic time in history to highlight timeless political principles such as saving face, mutual interest, and shadow desires.

This book also appears on Hal Steinberg's Favorite Novels


The Fountainhead

by Ayn Rand

One of several Rand tomes on capitalism, politics, and the courage to stick to your guns under intense pressure. I always felt Rand was a little militant in her views, but that notwithstanding, it's a great tale and the message comes through loud and clear. As long as you don't turn around and try to become Roark. Don't do that; Roark is a fictional character and a complete jerk. It's what he represents that's important. (Oh, and maybe because I read this one first, I am partial to The Fountainhead over Atlas Shrugged.)