Viewpoint: Management by reading

Reading Moby Dick. Photo Annika HjerpeReading management literature is rarely rewarding. For managers to read real literature, however, is a brilliant idea. Especially if you look for leaders who get everything wrong, so at least you know which mistakes to avoid.

Take Captain Ahab, for instance. The feared, monomatic leader of men on board the whaling ship Pequod, hunting for Moby Dick. No care for his people, no involvement, no empowerment, nothing of what we are told to look for today. Ahab is a leader driven solely by his instincts and lust for revenge, totally disregarding the dangers to which he exposes his ship, his crew and himself.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is equally illustrative and depressing. The dystopian novel centers around the foundations of civilization and how fragile our compassion for others really is. The ‘good guy’, Ralph, has big trouble maintaining a sort of democratic leadership, and is challenged by the brute Jack who forms his own tribe of stranded schoolboys and leads them by brutality.

Machiavelli’s The Prince, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ibsen’s Brand are all champions of terrible leadership and misjudgements.

Read to understand 

Where do we find the good leaders in fiction? The ones who command our respect? To us, they are nowhere to be found. For some reason, libraries are full of horrible leaders. At least as long as you look for them in the fiction department.

So what is good management literature? Maybe Ingebrigt’s father, the late publisher Brikt Jensen of Gyldendal Norsk Forlag in Norway, was right when he stated that managers should read all the time in order to understand the heart and soul of man, to reflect upon ethical dilemmas and the importance of choice – but never in search of leadership idols or recipes. His advice was simple. Avoid management literature at all costs. Read literature instead.

We found one poem portraying the qualities of good leadership, typically written by a stout defender of imperialism, namely Rudyard Kipling’s If. It may be pompous, but it moves your emotions.


But Kipling apart, you have to search outside the fiction and poetry shelves for sto ries and advice on how to be a leader. You find them in the Management Literature Department, bearing titles like Good to Great and Built to Last. And you find them under Biographies, whether they be about Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Alex Fergu son or Anita Roddick.

So librarians should be the best leaders in the world, having read all the novels of how not to do it, the management recipes of how to do it and the biographies of how people did it. Regrettably, avid readers ra rely choose to go into management. They prefer the solitude of a good chair, a good book and a bright lamp. They have the deepest understanding of man’s strengths and weaknesses, what drives us forward and what breaks us down, but they don’t use it for practical purposes.

Groups of people who succeed, who reach their goals and have fun on the way, are always blessed with good leaders. That’s why so many of us don’t succeed and never have fun. So librarians – shoul - der your responsibilities! Use all your knowledge, your extensive reading and your insight into people’s minds, to lead people. You don’t have to go to business schools to do it, you see. It’s probably an advantage not to.


Secondary-school teacher
Lecturer and writer
Rudyard Kipling's If