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9 Leadership Lessons From Classic Novels

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Around Dave’s office, we always say that leaders are readers.

Great leaders know they need to learn and stretch their minds. And they understand that reading is a great way to do that.

We all know about leadership books like Dave’s EntreLeadership, which offers outstanding principles to learn from and ways to grow as a leader.

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But what about fiction? Can you learn leadership lessons from fiction? Absolutely!

Here are some leadership lessons from nine classic novels.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Is there a greater example of leadership in literature than Atticus Finch? Here’s a guy who stands up for what he believes in: defending an innocent African-American. He’s literally putting his life on the line in the middle of a hateful, racist town. That’s sacrifice. And that’s also doing work that matters.

The Great Gatsby

What can you possibly learn from Jay Gatsby when it comes to leadership? How about the idea that you reap what you sow? On the outside, Gatsby was clean and polished. But behind the scenes, he hung out with a rough crowd and made his millions illegally. In other words, integrity wasn’t Gatsby’s strong suit. As a result, his fortune—and his life—fell apart very quickly.

Gone With the Wind

You can say a lot of bad things about Scarlett O’Hara, but the one thing you can’t say is that she didn’t get stuff done. When the crap hits the fan, Scarlett gets out and starts working the field. When she said, “I’ll never be hungry again,” she meant it.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Great Depression was tough on the Joad family. So when a horrible drought destroys the land and makes farming impossible, the Joads pack up and move west to California in search of jobs. Things don’t go great, but they adapt along the way. Sometimes in leadership, bad things happen and you’re forced to adapt—just like the Joad family. 

The Scarlet Letter

The Puritans condemned her for one mistake she made in her younger years, but she overcame that mistake and her condemners to build a life dedicated to helping others. Hester could’ve easily tried to fit in with the Puritans or gone into a downward spiral, but she stayed true to herself. She learned from her mistakes and helped others. That’s a great lesson in leadership.

The Call of the Wild

Leadership lessons from a dog? Oh yes. Buck was a powerful, smart St. Bernard with incredible instincts. That came in handy when his crappy owners tried to make him lead a sled of dogs across a frozen river. Buck wouldn’t budge. As a result, he didn’t die in a river, like his owners. Trust your instincts, leaders, and do what you know is right.

Moby Dick

The obvious leadership lesson here is not to be like Captain Ahab, perhaps one of the worst leaders in literature. Here’s a guy who sacrifices his life and the lives of his entire crew, other than Ishmael, in seeking revenge on a whale. A whale. Ahab was so focused on his crazy plan that he ignored everyone telling him he was crazy. Listen to the people around you—especially if you’re crazy.

1984

George Orwell’s classic novel is a case study in leadership by fear. 1984 shows leadership gone terribly wrong. Secrecy, invasion of privacy, intimidation, manipulation, coercion … It’s all there. Even worse, this isn’t just bad leadership within a company or business—it’s bad leadership by a government. If you want to know how not to lead, read 1984.

Animal Farm

Oh, you thought Animal Farm was just a fun little story about barnyard animals? No—it’s another example of leadership at its worst. This time, it’s a pig named Napoleon who strong-arms his way to power. Napoleon was based on Joseph Stalin—and, well, you know how that turned out.

What are some other classic novels that teach leadership lessons?

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