Q: What are some summer reading suggestions about how to become a more principled leader?
A: Most management wisdom about ethics in business will only tell you what your principles ought to be. It won’t show you how to live up to those ideals in a marketplace that constantly threatens them. That is where great literature can help — and it makes for better summer reading, too.
Sometimes, good behavior can be motivated by reading about people who broke the rules and failed. Three great books that depict the ascent and fall of unscrupulous businesspersons are Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers,” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Hamid’s book is styled as a self-help manual about lying and cheating, but as the narrator’s business grows, the costs of his methods accumulate. Meanwhile, “Dreamers” explores an immigrant family attempting to achieve the American dream during the Great Recession as characters experience moral and monetary bankruptcy. Wolfe’s portrait of Wall Street in the 1980s still resonates in a 21st century in which bankers seem to earn extraordinary profits for ordinary work. One of the great images in American literature is Wolfe’s description of “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, handcuffed, awaiting arraignment outside a Bronx courthouse in a downpour as rain streams down his face.
Three more great books that contain more hopeful portrayals of workplace honor are Louisa May Alcott’s “Work,” Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Way to Paradise,” and Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”
Alcott and Llosa narrate the inspiring journeys to leadership of their main characters, seeking to earn a living in industries in which women’s work is demeaning, underpaid or nonexistent. With Tolstoy’s novel, they reinforce the dignity of doing honest work performed for good ends. “Anna Karenina” is widely considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written about love and betrayal. It also is a testament to the satisfaction of tilling the fields with our own hands. I’ve been rewarding myself by rereading it this summer after I weed the garden.
Christopher Michaelson is on faculty in the ethics and business law department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.