Biographies of inspirational figures, leadership how-to titles, and management case studies will all give you great insights on how to be a better entrepreneur and leader, but if that's all you read, you're really not getting a well-rounded diet of books.
Scientific research and much admired leaders like Barack Obama, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg all agree -- if you want to get the most out of your reading time, you really need to mix in some literature.
Engaging with literary classics won't just make you a better informed citizen and more interesting conversationalist, they'll also teach you deep lessons about what motivates, perplexes, inspires, and corrupts human beings. Which is just what you need to know to be a great leader.
To help out those who want to broaden their reading horizons, I combed the internet for recommendations from experts and leaders, looking specifically for suggestions of classic books that have valuable lessons to teach aspiring leaders. Here's what I found.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you didn't manage to get through this classic story of a self-made millionaire's rise and fall (or if you've totally forgotten it since high school), now is a great time to pick it up.
From Gatsby we can learn "how life can be transformed by pitching one's life above the day-to-day practicality, above the desire for security, above the drive for power. I don't think that many of us can live at Gatsby's level of idealism very much of the time," Stanford Business School's Scotty McLennan says. "But of course Fitzgerald's book challenges us to an idealism beyond Gatsby's, by pointing up so poignantly the limitations of his ideals."
2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Author John Coleman included this classic on a list of must-read books for young leaders he pulled together for HBR. "Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus Aurelius is considered one of history's 'philosopher kings,' and his Meditations were perhaps his most lasting legacy," Coleman explains. "They remain a wonderful insight into the mind of a man who ruled history's most revered empire at the age of 40 and provide remarkably practical advice for everyday life."
3. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
A title of more recent vintage, Ferris's hilarious 2007 novel tells the story of the dying days of an advertising agency following the dot com bust. "The book offers keen insights into the way that even the most irritating co-workers can become your best friends -- and how even the most soul-sucking work can be fulfilling on some level," explains Shana Lebowitz in an article on the World Economic Forum. If you're looking for a title that's light enough to take on vacation, but still fully loaded with leadership wisdom, this just might be the book for you.
4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
This existentialist classic definitely isn't beach reading, but it is a "pretty powerful ways of clearing the deck," according to McLennan. It will force you to put aside petty everyday concerns and face the hardest question of all -- what is the meaning of life (or is there any meaning at all).
5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Set in a small Nigerian village under British colonial rule, this novel is full of leadership wisdom, according to both McLennan and Lebowitz, who claims it "raises questions about what makes a successful leader, and what happens when the leader's ambitions conflict with the group's interests."
Even if you already read it in school, give it another go now, suggests McLennan. "The exact same book looks different every ten years," he insists.
6. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A cautionary tale for leaders, this novel catalogs what happens when a plane crash leaves a group of schoolboys stranded alone on a deserted island. (Hint: it's nothing pretty). "For people at all levels of a business, the book offers meaningful lessons on the relationship between leaders and followers and the tension between teamwork and individuality," notes Lebowitz.
7. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
A favorite of Richard Branson (and also a cracking good tale), this novel of a boy's adventures in the antebellum American south was recommended by entrepreneur Sujan Patel in Entrepreneur. It's "the story of a boy growing up and learning to trust his own instincts of right and wrong over what society tells him. As an entrepreneur, this lesson of trusting your gut and not other people's opinions is an important one," he writes.
8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
A top recommendation of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, McLennan calls the understated novel about a British butler with a secret past a "helpful study of the difference between East and West." It's also a compelling portrait of regret, a case study in ethical decision-making, and an exploration of how repressed thoughts force their way to the surface. (It's one of my personal favorites too.)
9. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
A psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Frankl writes both about his horrifying experiences of living through a concentration camp and his theory of human psychology, known as logotherapy. "His story alone is worth the read -- a reminder of the depths and heights of human nature -- and the central contention of logotherapy -- that life is primarily about the search for meaning -- has inspired leaders for generations," contends Coleman.
10. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The UK's Independent newspaper included this one on its list of books that every well-rounded person should read. Why? It "makes philosophy relatable and easy to understand" and is "filled with timeless advice on how to live a better and more fulfilling life." Who couldn't use some of that wisdom? Plus, it's a pretty fun read.