A wealth of life and leadership wisdom is readily available in the great works of literature, film, theater, and oratory. We’re wise to plumb this fount of extraordinary knowledge.
We can learn much from the great works of history, including classic books, films, great poems, theater, and speeches. Thomas Jefferson created lists of great books for friends. Many universities have courses on the great works.
Our ancestors learned from each other by telling stories around the campfire. We often learn best through stories.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
-Joan Didion, author
Stories are full of joy, heartbreak, surprise, and suspense. They take us to places we could never visit and tell us about people we’ll never encounter. They teach us life lessons and have great insights into the best practices of leadership.
Rather than spend our limited free time binge-watching or doom-scrolling, we might find more value in absorbing some lessons of great books, films, plays, and speeches. They’re easily accessible online and at libraries.
We often hear people are too busy to read. Good leaders are lifelong learners. They make the time both to stretch their minds and to relax and enjoy themselves. What greater sources of knowledge and wisdom can we find than the great works of history?
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”
-Harry S. Truman, 33rd U.S. president
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Leadership Lessons from Great Literature and Speeches
For example, when we read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (or watch the films), we learn much about life and leadership:
- Leaders risk venturing into the unknown: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -Bilbo Baggins
- Leaders step up: “I will take the Ring,” Frodo said, “though I do not know the way.”
- Leaders must make grave choices: Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
- Leaders rely on trust and fellowship: “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin—to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours—closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” -Merry Brandybuck
- Leaders fight for what’s right: “ …there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.” -Samwise Gamgee
- Everyone can lead at times: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” -Lady Galadriel
- Leaders have heart and show spirit: “It is not the strength of the body, but the strength of the spirit.” -Gandalf
- Leaders show courage: “I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day…. This day we fight!” -Aragorn
- Leaders do what must be done: “I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you!” -Samwise Gamgee to Frodo
From the ring quest, we see that leadership is a group performance, not a solo act. Leadership there was a dynamic that bounced around between Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sam, and others. (See also our article, “Leadership Lessons from the Lord of the Rings.”)
When we read Henry V by Shakespeare, we can learn about hardship, conflict, credibility, brotherhood in arms, communication, inspiration, and redemption. In this famous speech, King Henry V inspires his troops by saying they’ll be his “brother,” an unprecedented pronouncement from the King.
“…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
-from Henry V, Act IV, Scene III
“Leading well means having the courage to fight for worthy causes.”
-Bob Vanourek, Leadership Wisdom
When we read The Iliad from Homer, we can learn about passion, vexing dilemmas, tragedy, conflict, and the needs of individuals versus organizations.
From Abraham Lincoln in “The Gettysburg Address,” in just 272 words, we can learn about honor, devotion, resolve, freedom, vision, and hope.
From Martin Luther King, Jr., we can marvel at how Dr. King went off-script after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out to him from the crowd during his prepared remarks in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “Tell them about the dream Martin!” He went on to teach us about nonviolent resistance, equality, justice, courage, faith, hope, love, vision, shared values, redemption, and freedom. (See our article, “Spirituality and Leadership in Action—Martin Luther King, Jr.”)
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Leadership Lessons from Great Films
From the film “Apollo 13,” we can learn lessons about mission, teamwork, innovation, improvisation, pressure, urgency, optimism, and navigating complexity and uncertainty.
In the film “Hoosiers” about an Indiana high school basketball team, we can learn about motivation, hard work, mutual care, commitment, discipline, principles, developing others, faith, and team turnarounds. (Another great film with similar lessons: “Coach Carter.”)
From the historical drama film “Iron Jawed Angels” about the women’s suffrage movement, we can learn about conviction, strategy, community, equality, solidarity, support, excellence, confrontation, liberty, and adaptation—not to mention feminism.
In the film “Dead Poet’s Society,” we can learn about heart, inspiration, passion, conviction, institutional resistance, and the risks of change.
“Leadership Wisdom: Lessons from Poetry, Prose, and Curious Verse”
Given Bob’s love of literature and leadership, he wrote a book titled Leadership Wisdom: Lessons from Poetry, Prose, and Curious Verse. It quoted poem, book, and speech passages from more than 70 authors and speakers over the past two thousand years, followed by his analysis of their themes and practical applications. The book had three sections—Leading Yourself First, Leading Others, and Leaving a Leadership Legacy.
Its first poem, “If” (by Rudyard Kipling) has special meaning in our family, in part because it’s a master class on character. Excerpts:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Bob’s book quotes Professor Albus Dumbledore from J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
“I say to you all, once again—in the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
So relevant to leaders and citizens today in this age of division, distrust, and contempt for people with different views.
The book also quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu from the classic, Tao Te Ching:
“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, and worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people; They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done and his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”
The book quotes Victor Frankl writing about his experience surviving a Nazi concentration camp:
“We who have lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”
And it quotes Nelson Mandela from his book, Long Walk to Freedom:
“A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a taste of freedom.
In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”
There is a wealth of life and leadership wisdom in the great works of literature, film, theater, and oratory. We can and should enhance our leadership and life perspectives as well as just marvel at and enjoy the creative genius of the greats over the ages.
- How could you and your team or organization benefit from tapping into the wisdom of the great works?
- Why not carve out some time to begin exploring these great works?
- When will you start with just one great book, film, or speech—and who will you discuss it with?
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
Related Books and Articles
- “Leadership Lessons from the Lord of the Rings”
- John K. Clemens and Melora Wolff, Movies to Manage by: Lessons in Leadership from Great Films (Contemporary Books, 1999)
- Colleen Striegel and Shaun O’L. Higgins, Movies for Leaders: Management Lessons from Four All-Time Great Films (New Media Ventures, 1999)
- Joseph Lalonde, Reel Leadership: Discovering the Hidden Leadership Lessons in Movies (New Degree Press, 2021)
- Christopher Leon Eddy, The Hidden Secrets of Leadership Found in Movie Quotes (independent, 2017)
- John O. Whitney and Tina Packer, Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management (Simon and Schuster, 2001)
Other Resources: Courses, Programs, and Podcasts
- Aspen Institute’s “Great Books Discussion Series”
- The Learning Channel’s “Great Books Series”
- The Learning Channel’s list of great books
- “Leadership Lessons from the Great Books” podcast series
Phi Theta Kappa is an international honor society providing opportunities for students seeking associate degrees to grow as scholars and leaders. Bob taught its Leadership Development Curriculum for several years after he retired. Its “Developing a Personal Leadership Philosophy” course included the following:
- “Leading By Serving” from authors such as Hermann Hesse, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Robert Greenleaf, and more with the film “Hotel Rwanda.”
- “Understanding Ethical Leadership” from such authors as Herman Melville, Confucius, Rushworth Kidder, Gandhi, and more with the film “Miss Evers’ Boys.”
- “Articulating a Vision” from such authors as Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, James Kouzes and Barry Posner and more with the film “Iron Jawed Angels.”
- “Building a Team” from such authors as John Steinbeck, Vince Lombardi, Warren Bennis and more with the film “Remember the Titans.”
- “Leading with Goals” from such authors as George Bernard Shaw, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Covey, and more with the film “Apollo 13.”
- “Making Decisions” from such authors as Mark Twain, Chief Joseph, Robert Frost, George Orwell, and more with the film “Thirteen Days.”
- “Guiding through Conflict” from such authors as Homer, Thomas Aquinas, James Madison, and more with the film “Crash.”
- “Realizing Change” from such authors as Plato, Susan B. Anthony, Winston Churchill, John Kotter, and more with the film “Schindler’s List.”
- “Empowering Others” from such authors as Sophocles, Nelson Mandela, Daniel Goleman, and more with the film “Norma Rae.”
Bob Vanourek’s Favorite Great Books (including some children’s classics):
“1984,” George Orwell
“Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte
What’s on your list of great works?
We’d love to hear from you, so please get in touch and let us know.
Postscript: Quotations on the Great Works
- “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” -Orhan Pamuk, author
- “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” -Margaret Fuller, journalist
- “Reality doesn’t always give us the life that we desire, but we can always find what we desire between the pages of books.” -Adelise M. Cullens, author
- “Reading is an act of civilization; it’s one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities.” -Ben Okri, poet
- “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…. The man who never reads lives only one.” -George R.R. Martin, author
- “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for a thousand years. To read is to voyage through time.” -Carl Sagan, astronomer
- “A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.” -Charles Baudelaire, poet
- “When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” -Maya Angelou, poet and civil-rights activist
- “Books and doors are the same thing. You open them, and you go through into another world.” -Jeanette Winterson, author
- “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” -Rene Descartes, French philosopher
- “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” -Jhumpa Lahiri,author
- “I love the way that each book—any book—is its own journey. You open it, and off you go….” -Sharon Creech, author
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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!