A Leadership Book Author On Why You're Better Off Reading Fiction For Lasting Lessons

Craig Chappelow has written about how leaders can be more successful. But he'd crack One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest before the latest business book any day. Here's why he thinks you should, too.

Read any good leadership books lately? Me either. It seems like popular books about leadership are getting drier, less interesting, and more expensive. The worst are the celebrity CEO autobiographies. Must we?

Here’s the reality: For most people, leadership books, especially those of the mainstream, commercial variety, just don’t make much of a lasting impact. An ongoing stream of research conducted by my employer, The Center for Creative Leadership, shows that the vast majority of the key lessons that leaders learn result from on-the-job experience. Enduring hardships, tackling challenging assignments, and being exposed to effective coaches and mentors make much more of a difference than reading leadership books. This is often referred to as the 70-20-10 rule—70% of learning comes from direct experience, 20% from the influence of others, and 10% from classes and reading.

The executives I work with sometimes take heroic measures to keep up with popular leadership literature. They feel like they have to keep current; I can’t blame them. When a client asks if I have read the leadership book of the moment, I have to be able to say yes. I just wish the vast majority of them weren’t so poorly written and boring.

In the interests of self-disclosure, I’ve contributed my share of this junk—and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that something I wrote about leadership changed their life. I came close a couple of months ago. A participant in one of CCL’s leadership programs said it was nice to meet me in person. He knew me through a book chapter I’d written for a thick leadership handbook! Then came the truth: He said he’d just finished translating my chapter into Chinese for a publisher who owns the rights in Asia. So, in other words, he read my chapter because someone paid him.

But this isn’t to say you can’t gain valuable leadership lessons from reading. You just need to pick the right genres. For my part, I’ll choose novels any day. I remember reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in high school, totally absorbed by the ruthless, authoritarian leadership of Nurse Ratched and the populist appeal of the rebellious Randle McMurphy and his ability to influence the other inmates.

That’s why I was so grateful when a client asked if I had read Replay by Ken Grimwood. Assuming it was a leadership book—and bracing for the worst—I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fiction. The story is about a guy who, at age 43, picks up his office phone to call his wife. He never completes the call because he has a heart attack and dies on page 3. The rest of the book explores his efforts to relive his life over and over again (don’t ask me to explain how that works in this piece). It’s not an exaggeration to say this novel changed the way I look at leadership. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it helped me understand three crucial leadership lessons in a new way:

1. Make a decision.

Today. Use the information you have at your disposal and decide. There is always one more study, one more web search, one more opinion you can collect. Don’t be seduced by the promise that more information equals better decisions.

2. Don’t second-guess.

If you had a chance to do something over again, even knowing what you know now, you very well might do worse. That’s not to say you shouldn’t review or consider the impact of your actions. Just don’t wallow in the past, wishing you could do it over again.

3. Take the lead on making connections with other people.

I viewed this as a bigger message from the book. By accelerating the story time span, the author forced me to think about how short life really is. Tomorrow is not a promise, and we have today to act. If you have something to say to somebody, say it.

I carry these lessons with me every day as a part of my approach to developing better leaders—not to mention the way I interact with my family and friends.

What about you? What non-leadership books influenced you as a leader, and what were the lessons you took from them? I’ll bet we can generate a pretty good list.

[Image: Flickr user Casey Muir-Taylor]

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  • I remember the leadership and teamwork lessons from the book, Lone Survivor...more than I can recall any leadership book. And I read that book five years ago! How is that for the power of a story?

  • Craig Chappelow

    Thanks to everyone who responded with your reading suggestions.  You have generated a terrific list.  I have listed them below in no particular order.  Happy reading and happy leading.

    Down” by Richard Adams

    Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers;

     “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in
    War and Peace” by H.W. Brands

    Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830”  by Paul Johnson,

    Rise of Teddy Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris

    E. Lee on Leadership” by H. W. Crocker

    of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President”
    by Candice Millard

    of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden

    of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest
    Shipwreck" By Gary Kinder

    Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs

    by Ken Grimwood

    A Great Notion" by Ken Kesey

    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain

    of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns

    “Peter Jackson: A Filmmaker's Journey” by
    Brian Sibley

    “Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited
    Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro And What This Means For Cinema” by Brian

    “The Frodo Franchise: The Lord Of The Rings
    and Modern Hollywood” by Kristin Thompson

    “The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do” by Bruce Lee

    “David's Truth” by Walter Brueggemann

    “The Naked Now” by Richard Rohr

    “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” by
    Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

    “The Making Of Star Wars: The Definitive
    Story Behind The Original Film” by J.W. Rinzler

    “A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeline L'Engel

    “The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe” by
    C.S. Lewis

    “The Lord Of The Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

    “Sylvester Stallone: An Illustrated Life” by
    Marsha Daley

    “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

    "Pickford: The Woman Who Made
    Hollywood" by Eileen Whitfield

    “The Art Of War” by Sun Tzu

    “The Soul Of Screenwriting: On Writing, Dramatic
    Truth, And Knowing Yourself” by Keith Cunningham

    “The Call Of The Wild” by Jack London

    "A Pattern Language" by Christopher

    “The Sleeper Awakes” by H.G. Wells

    “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph

    "Boss Tweed" by Kenneth D.

    "On Writing" by Stephen King

    "The Short Stories of F. Scott
    Fitzgerald" edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli

    "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor E. Frankl

    "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success"
    by Carol Dweck

    “Company” by Max Barry


  • Jason Russo

    Peter Jackson: A Filmmaker's Journey, by Brian Sibley

    Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro And What This Means For Cinema, by Brian Koppelman

    The Frodo Franchise: The Lord Of The Rings and Modern Hollywood, by Kristin Thompson

    The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do, by Bruce Lee

    David's Truth, by Walter Brueggemann

    The Naked Now, by Richard Rohr

    The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

    The Making Of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind The Original Film, by J.W. Rinzler

    A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L'Engel

    The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis

    The Lord Of The Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

    Sylvester Stallone: An Illustrated Life, by Marsha Daley

    Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

    The Art Of War, by Sun Tzu

    The Soul Of Screenwriting: On Writing, Dramatic Truth, And Knowing Yourself, by Keith Cunningham

    The Call Of The Wild, by Jack London

    The Sleeper Awakes, by H.G. Wells

    The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

    ...great article, btw!!!

  • Deirdre Abrahamsson

    I will chime in with "Boss Tweed" by Kenneth D. Ackerman. Wonderful book. The
    more things change, the more they stay the same. I love reading and
    learning about NYC history, and it is important to put things into perspective. (My top strength in Strengths Finder is Context, and it is spot-on for me.)
    "On Writing" by Stephen King is another good one to see how someone has mastered their craft.

    "Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald." Entertaining, insightful, witty.

    Books on my to-read list are:
    "Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood" by Eileen Whitfield
    "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander
    "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor E. Frankl

    And after reading a bit about Coach Wooden in "Mindset" by Carol Dweck (LOVE this book), I am inspired to read more by him and about him.

  • David J Bland

    Do you feel the same way about Business Novels or Leadership Fables?

    I tend to separate them from traditional business and leadership books.

  • johnnylucid

    Craig, you've made excellent case for the ongoing relevance of the humanities, a/k/a liberal arts, in undergraduate education. As a few others have pointed out, I would also recommend histories and biographies to the reading list.

  • Jonathan V

    My two favorites: "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea." The former, fiction, shows many different styles of leadership and how to work well (or not well) with others in the context of an epic. The latter is a non-fiction account of how a guy who should not have been able to succeed, raised from the bottom of the Atlantic a lot of gold that sank, and the thinking process and upstream struggle he had to face to do it.

  • Doug Riddle

    Spot on, Craig! It was kind of you not to mention that so many business books by successful leaders have the subtext, "if you could just be me, you'd be more successful." So little research seems to make it into our consciousness as we plumb the mysteries associated with leading people. Thanks for spotlighting some.

  • voracious guest reader

    Victorian fiction is full of leadership gems - I read it by the boatload, and am amazed at the valuable observations on life, humans and leadersip...

  • avilbeckford

    I think that Watership Down is an excellent leadership book and the characters are rabbits. It also teaches us that leaders can be made! Avil Beckford

  • Donald Bellefeuille

    OK, so now that we've broken into the non-fiction ranks I would like to add "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. How does it relate to leadership? Jane Jacobs completely broke the mold when it came to city and urban planning. She was not formally trained but had the eye to see things differently. She was probably the first blue ocean strategist, and perhaps even crowd sourcer, and never realized it. Leadership take away: Keep an open mind to all possibilities and invite people to your team who are not embedded or beholden to the organization.

    Regarding "Sometimes A Great Notion": Don't forget the last chapter with the logging tug going downriver and the old man's forearm and hand strapped to the mast giving everybody the bird. Wouldn't recommend it for a CEO but you gotta love the defiance. 

  • MarleneO

    In addition to specific lessons, I find that fiction gives me a glimpse into a range of personalities, realities, and dynamics. Constantly consuming fiction forces me out of my own perception of life and human interaction; understanding the perspectives of others is so important for a leader.

  • Craig Chappelow

    Well said Marleno.  What are some titles you would offer in that vein?

  • MarleneO

    Thank you! For the benefits I describe, I feel the important component is to build a habit of reading fiction in general versus any particular books. All the classics I can get my hands on and contemporary authors from far and wide. For me the most important thing is not to get into a rut and be open to building as diverse a fiction library as possible.

  • Donald Bellefeuille

    I would add "Sometimes A Great Notion", also by Ken Kesey, to the list. It's more complex than Cuckoo's Nest and has lessons in good and bad leadership.

  • Craig Chappelow

    Donald,  Good addition, thanks for your response--which gave me a flashback to that great novel.  The clear memory I have of it is the stubborn (nearly crazed) father patching together every scrap of lumber he found to their dock to keep the river from washing away their property. Great book about taking a stand.

  • Bobby Ray Burns

    And, if I may, I would like to add another wrinkle: read biographies of great men and women - while not fiction nor business leadership books, they can and do bring forth powerful life lessons and leadership lessons. And it never hurts a leader in business to broaden and deepen his or her intellectual, social, and cultural understanding.

  • Craig Chappelow

    You may, and I'm glad you did, Bobby Ray.  What are the ones you would recommend?