When I first became a manager, I couldn't read enough: managing employees; managing customers; how to look for the guys who stole my cheese; how to become great. I read all those books. They didn't help. To tell you the truth, they all felt kind of generic to me--no matter how smart or famous the author was.

I slowly figured out that the best books, with the greatest lessons, weren't always the ones with "five ways to do something" in the title. I was finding the best leadership lessons in novels and nonfiction that would never get onto the business-book bestseller lists.

Looking for a great leadership book? A few years back, a lot of business folks discovered one in the story of early-20th-century Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. A whole industry, it seemed, was built around his failed but heroic mission to the South Pole. You can find similar books, and lessons, out there in the most unexpected places. 

Abraham Lincoln is the go-to former President for management writers, but add Dwight D. Eisenhower to that list. This book, by former Newsweek writer and editor Thomas, portrays Eisenhower as a canny strategic thinker and a master of managing strong and conflicting personalities during the Cold War. Eisenhower showed how to control the egos of his team members and his adversaries during negotiations. And he was a pretty darn good bluffer as well: Would he actually use nuclear weapons?

There are lessons galore here. One is the price of complacency. Johnson veered from all powerful to a lot less powerful, in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, when he lost the Democratic nomination for President to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and became a weak Vice President. How did that happen? Kennedy and his team secured the Democratic nomination partly because they put in years of grunt work--aggressively recruiting allies in primary states, for example. Johnson's team, meanwhile, assumed the nomination was his for the taking.

If you haven't read this classic, take it on your next business trip. Even when you think you have got it made, foreseeable and unforeseeable threats lurk. The big takeaway? Hubris, especially after a period of rapid growth and wealth building, is your worst enemy. You can throw greed in there, too (and booze and drugs and fast cars). Sure, you can get some of these same lessons from Nassim Taleb's 2007 bestseller The Black Swan, but Vanities is a lot more entertaining.

You're probably wondering what business lessons a book about suburban dysfunction could possibly deliver. Maybe it's just me, but the book helped this young manager understand that you're never dealing with rational, mature adults on your team, even if that's the way everyone appears on the surface.

If you can't deal with your staff members' emotional swings--often a direct result of their screwy home lives--get out of management. And if your employees are really getting you down, pick up a copy of Little Children and check out Perrotta's crowd. Holy cow!

The Mask of Command, by John Keegan

Heroism is always a popular topic. But must entrepreneurs be heroic? Or charismatic? It depends on the battle, says Keegan, the great military historian. The "hero" of this book is General Ulysses S. Grant, who, says Keegan, provides a case study in effective "unheroic leadership."

Grant was no Alexander the Great. He was no Steve Jobs or Sam Walton, if you want to look at it that way. But winning the Civil War didn't require charisma, says Keegan: It required someone who could relate to soldiers and who grasped the political dimensions of the war. Charisma would have just gotten in the way.

From the March 2014 issue of Inc. magazine