Leadership Lessons from Fiction
by Ed Ruggero
Do an online search for books on leadership and you'll find more non-fiction titles than you could read in a lifetime. Great lessons are also available in fiction, works that are designed to be compelling. And since humans are wired to remember stories, lessons gleaned from fiction may have a longer shelf-life. A good story is a powerful teaching tool, and you can have fun while absorbing it. Here are a few titles to consider.
The Killer Angels, Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the battle of Gettysburg, by Michael Shaara.
Before Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain displays any combat leadership in the story, he employs remarkable emotional intelligence in handling what could have been a crisis for his command. Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, is put in charge of men from a sister unit, the 2d Maine, who refuse to fight because they believe they have served out their enlistments. Chamberlain is told the men are mutineers and that if they refuse to follow his orders, he can shoot them for cowardice. But Chamberlain knows that these soldiers, who have already served admirably in previous battles, are not cowards. Instead of relying on his authority to order the so-called mutineers into the ranks, he invites a representative to air their grievances. He assumes positive intent and listens first.
Chamberlain feeds the hungry men—who have been denied food. He acknowledges what they already suspect is true: he will not execute them—he could never return to Maine after the war if he did so. He expresses sympathy for their plight but does not make false promises that he can fix everything. "I’ll see what I can do," he tells them. Then he appeals to their pride and asks—he does not demand, he asks—the men to join his formation. "I need you in this coming battle," he says. The vast majority of the men answer his call.
True Grit, By Charles Portis
In this American classic, the narrator is the fourteen-year-old Mattie Hayes, who sets off in the dead of winter into a lawless stretch of the Oklahoma Territory to track down her father's killer, Tom Chaney. Mattie has hired US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and they have been joined by the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, who is also on Chaney's trail. The two lawmen try to leave Mattie behind when they ride into the wild. "This is not a picnic," Cogburn tells her. "It will be rough living and no place for a girl."
Mattie displays remarkable ingenuity, physical courage and, of course, grit in order to win her place in the posse—she will see Chaney brought to justice—even so, the two men accept her reluctantly. Cogburn and LeBoeuf clash in nearly every scene, and while their insults give the novel some of its remarkable humor, these two violent men are only one cross word away from shooting each other. The tension rises as the trio sits around a campfire. Mattie realizes that if they duel, her mission will be a failure.
She has no authority, but she uses what she does have. They see her as a little girl, and she plays that card, setting aside her ego and risking all the work she's done to be accepted, in the service of defusing the situation.
She disarms them with a child's suggestion. "Would you two like to hear the story of ‘The Midnight Caller'? One of you will have to be ‘The Caller.' I will tell you what to say. I will do all the other parts myself."
They don't take her up on her offer for a child's campfire tale, but they don't shoot each other either, and the fourteen year old's mission is still intact.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Set in an untamed Texas in 1870, News follows an old veteran, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, as he rides a circuit reading aloud newspaper articles in isolated towns on the frontier, regaling locals—many of them illiterate—by conjuring images of London, Paris, Moscow and even far away New York. Kidd makes his journey infinitely more challenging when he adds a passenger: a ten-year old white girl, who has been "rescued" from Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her and killed her family. Kidd agrees to return her to relations in south Texas. Every other white character in the book thinks the girl should be thrilled to be away from the Kiowa, but Kidd discerns a broken heart.
Like Joshua Chamberlain, Kidd wants to listen, to learn the girl's thoughts, but the child has lost her English during her captivity. That the two characters come from wildly different worlds is clear when Kidd must instruct the girl that it is "considered very impolite" to take a scalp. Kidd is patient and persistent, trying his best to meet the girl where she is, emotionally, rather than assuming she is grateful for her "rescue."
An effective leader cannot assume that what he or she says is exactly what the audience hears. Clear communication takes persistence and compassion and careful attention to feedback.
A movie version of News of the World, starring Tom Hanks, is set for release in late 2020.
Blame the Dead, by Ed Ruggero
As Military Police lieutenant Eddie Harkins investigates the murder of a US Army surgeon in the wake of the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily, he is tempted to resort to the tactics he used as an immature young cop back in Philadelphia, where he occasionally dealt street justice with his fists. When a nurse is brutally attacked, Harkins' instinct is to use violence, a tendency that is reinforced by the wartime violence surrounding him. Short on sleep, under the pressure of the investigation and the threat of enemy attack, he can feel the onset of what we would call PTSD and what was then called battle fatigue. But when a victim, who knew Harkins as a boy, tells him, "You're better than that," he accepts the difficult challenge to live up to the values he professes. Living values, personal or corporate, is relatively easy when things are going well, and infinitely more difficult under trying conditions. But it is during those tough times that people want a leader who continues to walk the talk.