Novel Lessons of Leadership

The dean of the Fletcher School talks about what he learned from reading great books
James Stavridis at Tufts
“So many leaders have tried to cut corners, thinking that they can get away with moral surrender on challenging points,” writes James Stavridis. “What you do when you think no one is looking is the true test of character.” Photo: Daniel Grichevsky
March 24, 2017

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Leadership is an art, not a science. Its fundamentals are not found in books, however brilliant they may be. Good leadership begins with the gifts we are given at birth: our temperament, physical attributes and health. Our life experiences—family, school, social situations, challenges and successes—all create the database upon which we draw as we evolve as leaders. But there is an aspect of leadership that can be improved by study, largely centered on reading books that illuminate some lessons other successful leaders have learned.

Interestingly, the books that best hone us as leaders are generally not the sort of airport tomes that are churned out by the “leadership industry.” Instead, they are novels, plays, collections of poetry, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, and histories, according to some of the world’s most experienced leaders. In writing our new book, The Leader’s Bookshelf, former naval officer Bob Ancell and I reached out to more than 200 senior admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their professional lives to leadership. We asked each of them to tell us what books had given them the greatest insight into successfully leading high-stress operations. From their input, we came up with a list of 50 classic books that cut across all genres, but have one thing in common—they have had helped the leaders we surveyed achieve at the very highest levels.

The Leader’s Bookshelf is an attempt to provide a resource to those who want to lead better—in their families, in their departments at a university, within the halls of a major corporation or in the setting of a military alliance like NATO. The truth is that good leadership transcends personality, circumstance, time and place. The 50 volumes on this bookshelf can help us achieve the most meaningful thing in our lives: being good, just and effective leaders.

It is impossible to describe the rich stew of ideas and observations in a few sentences, so I offer up here five key attributes that jumped out across the 50 books.

Innovation is the heart of leadership. Steve Jobs said the ability to innovate is what separates leaders from followers. He was right. We see this again and again in the context of good leadership—what inspires people in the end is the new idea, a different way of seeing the challenge, and the creative process that allows the leader to think his or her way to success. Many of the books on the list make this point, none more powerfully than the Mark Twain classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, about a time-traveling engineer who uses technology to shape the world in which he suddenly finds himself.

Finding the balance between caring for your people and accomplishing the mission is the hardest task. Again and again in the 50 books, we see leaders struggling with the need to drive their subordinates hard to accomplish a critical task while still taking care of their teams’ physical, psychological and material needs. This theme repeats, especially in the military books we cover, but it is beautifully personified in Patrick O’Brian’s epic series of sea novels, beginning with the classic Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey seeks to successfully accomplish his missions, but in a way that enriches his sailors. Through success and failure, he struggles to find the right balance—often with the advice of his faithful ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

One size does not fit all. Throughout the 50 books, there are dozens of approaches to how leaders can succeed. Perhaps the best presentation of that spectrum can be found in Michael Shaara’s extraordinary depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg in Killer Angels. He gives us very real portraits of leading Union and Confederate generals, and shows the striking range of styles, from the calm, rational, intellectually based leadership of Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain of Maine to the religiously based, leader-as-godlike-figure of the South’s Robert E. Lee. As leaders, we all struggle to find our voices, and Killer Angels, along with many of the other books on the list, shows us that there is not a single formula for success.

Integrity is the bedrock of leadership. So many leaders have tried to cut corners, thinking that they can get away with moral surrender on challenging points. The 50 books demonstrate over and over the value of taking the “hard right” over the “easy wrong.” What you do when you think no one is looking is the true test of character. The book that illuminates moral choices best is Anton Myrer’s story of two Army careers, Once an Eagle. As the novel contrasts two officers working their way up the chain of command, we see the fundamental value of taking the higher moral and ethical ground, even if there are short-term costs. Sam Damon, the “good” officer, is the example we need to emulate, and his story has inspired generations of military officers as they find their way to integrity.

Collaboration is a winning strategy. The very best leaders want to create win-win outcomes with their peers, and recognize how important peer relationships are to successful leadership. Like Larry Bird or LeBron James on a basketball court, they make everyone else on the team look good. We see this throughout our selection of books, but one that personifies teamwork is Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s terrific study of Abraham Lincoln’s ability to put together a cabinet of political rivals who eventually become so much greater than the sum of their parts. Leaders win by working with peers, often overcoming jealousy and the ill winds of the public sphere to do so.

James Stavridis, F83, F84, is the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His latest book, The Leader’s Bookshelf, co-authored with R. Manning Ancell, was released by Naval Institute Press in March.

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