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Literature can be source of inspiration for leaders

Edwin, a kid brother with unusual reading interest, asked me to secure for him biographical books on strategy and leadership. I told him I have a number of books on political, business and military leaders I would lend him.

“I hope the books are about or by controversial or unconventional leaders — those who changed things for ill or good,” he replied. He particularly asked for books on, or by, men like Cuban Fidel Castro and the Argentinian revolutionary and military leader, Ernesto Guevara.

He said he had read lots of classic novels but now wanted develop mastery of strategy given his new responsibilities as a strategist for his organisation. I congratulated him for his interest in Literature and great historical figures.

Few people, including those in leadership positions, know Literature and history was for many years, the vehicle for developing leaders. Management is a modern discipline that emerged at the beginning of 20th Century.

Great military leaders and statesmen in the past were fed on history and great biographical books and not on management. Sociology and psychology from which courses in management is drawn had not been developed then.

Modern business and political leaders look for formal books on management and leadership when they want to read something that is likely to improve their management and leadership skills. They are likely to dive into accounting jargon, organisation charts, and management principles or motivational books on leadership.

However, any book on or about a man or woman who has led an organisation or people has something new to give the reader — regardless of whether it is formal or informal. This is particularly when the book meets the highest standards of writing — in substance matter and style.

A strategy is a guiding principle or principles that an individual uses to help him to make decisions that link him to desired ends with the resources you have available (the “means”) and the process he wants to follow to get there (the “ways”).

The visions, purposes and values that define leadership is shaped by many things. It is not restricted to formal books on business or accounting, much less in revolutionary books the Castros and Guevaras of this world.

While formal books on leadership, management and business can help cut through the mass of inanimate data to understand the situation from an inanimate standpoint, they cannot help one get into the inner lives of the people he is working with to solve a problem. Some of the most valuable insights into the heart of leadership don’t come from the business aisle.

They come from the literary classics. Unlike traditional business books, literature allows you access to the inner lives of its characters. Classic literature is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

It Educates and entertains at the same time. It simulates life situations — life like situations in all their gyrations — the onset of a problem, its ramifications and implications on the values that mankind has held dear: freedom, security, prosperity.

The strategic decisions we all make — leaders and followers alike — are geared restoring or improving those things that make life worth living. Literature abounds with situations where leadership is tested, where characters are forced to make decisions to solve problems with a view to calming people’s anxieties or raise their hopes.

The best place to cultivate one’s mind, heart and soul — the loadstar that an organisation needs from a leader — is in great fiction and nonfiction works. They can be novels, poetry, plays, biographies, books on war and philosophy. There is a lot to learn about leadership from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart than most teachers of Literature may appreciate.

What defines the perfect complex situation leaders typically grapple is there: the juxtaposition of traditional African society with the imposition of Western religion, military, and business. How missionaries can change Umofia people to embrace Christianity is the classic series of situations that confront leaders anywhere.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s The River Between is another novel. Waiyaki is faced with situations he must make decisions on. Although forbidding, Albert Camus’ The Plague is another book that stops the reader to ask him the meaning of life—and in finding meaning lies the anchor for all decisions that make a difference in the life of an organisation.

There are insightful lessons about leadership, about strategy in Charles Dickens’ children’s novel Christmas Carols, so is A bell for Adano by John Hersey and Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a study in strategy.

Look at the maneuvers of Napoleon and Snowball in Animal Farm on how to make the revolution secure. Strategy! A Man for all Seasons by Robert Bolt’s or why Machiavelli’s The Prince are actually a kind of handbook on courage is the defining trait for any leader. It might interest my young brother and all strategists that Guevara was passionate about poetry and other classical novelists.

That means that an hours reading of book written by a great novelist or poet is likely to give you unique insights into people. And management is ultimately about people, their likes and dislikes. —The writer the Communications Officer, Ministry of Education

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