12 Most Against the Grain Leadership Lessons from Dystopian Literature
Fiction is a mirror for reality. It helps us to more fully understand ourselves and others. For aspiring leaders, it’s essential every now and then to get into a good story, vicariously experience what the characters go through, and reflect on its implications for their lives. For the purpose of developing necessary leadership attitudes, the most beneficial fiction one can read is probably dystopian literature.
What is dystopian literature? Well, it’s not really a genre. It’s a theme that carries itself across many genres (though it is used heavily in science-fiction). Dystopian literature focuses on alternate societies in which civilization has somehow gone wrong and individualism is suppressed by some paternalistic entity. In other words, there are no leaders or followers — only masters and slaves.
In most dystopian novels, a character or set of character emerges that defies the norm. They rebel against the existing conventions and inspire others with their audacity. Isn’t that really what leadership is all about? Breaking the mold. Leading a revolt. Inspiring positive change.
Each one of us lives in our own dystopia — a space in which hordes of people are blindly following a person, cause, idea, or status-quo that runs counter to progress. We can be that character that defies the conventions in order to build a better society. We can be that leader. Here are some lessons to get us started…
1. Anthem by Ayn Rand: Leaders know that innovation comes from individuals
The central character lives in a society where all people are viewed as one. He discovers an underground cave where he finds remnants of past civilization… including a light bulb. When he presents his find to the ruling body, he is chastised for doing something apart from his brothers.
Leaders know that the greatest innovations occur when individuals are given the freedom to think. The group benefits most from the contributions of its members rather than from the blind obedience of them.
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Leaders thrive on authenticity
The savage enters into a Utopian society in which people are drugged in order to feel happy. He resists becoming part of it and longs instead to feel the discomfort that he knows is real.
Leaders see things as they are. They want the truth. They don’t want to take the easy way out. They take every experience for what it is. Leaders will “claim the right to be unhappy” before pretending that everything is okay.
3. 1984 by George Orwell: Leaders despise lies
The main character works as an editor, rewriting history to be in accordance with the agenda of “Big Brother.” Despite living in a society in which the ruling party controls the lives of every human being and hunts after dissenters with the thought police, the main character despises the lies he has to create and keeps a journal of his true thoughts.
Leaders want to see the truth in all things. They want the facts, even when they aren’t convenient.
4. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Leaders know that fear is in the eye of the beholder
All throughout the novel, there is one kid who is scarier than all. Seen through the eyes of the other children, he appears to be a ruthless tyrant. At the end of the novel, though, we are able to see him through the eyes of an adult and he is described as “a little boy.”
Leaders are able to put fear in perspective. They know that, for every scary thing they can encounter, there is a perceptive that renders it insignificant.
5. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Leaders focus on what matters
The main character in this story runs into a group of aliens that are able to see in four dimensions, that is they are able to see all time (past, present, and future) at once. They can’t change anything about it, but they can choose to focus on whatever part of it they want.
Leaders prioritize. They focus on what matters most.
6. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Leaders place integrity over victory
At the end of the story, the main character has the opportunity to win the hunger games and return to her family if she kills her friend. She refuses… and almost dies because of it.
Leaders do what’s right even if it means losing everything. Integrity is the foundation of every leader.
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell: Leaders take responsibility for the good of their community
One character on the animal farm looks after all of the other animals, giving them advice, guidance, and care.
Leaders take ownership of their community. They care for them and nurture them, even when the powers that be make it difficult.
8. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Leaders know that anyone can be influential
A few child characters in this 1980’s futuristic novel are able to log-on to “the nets,” create alternate identities, and begin building influence by participating on digital conversations. Prophetic, no?
Leaders are able to use the existing digital platforms to build influence. They embrace the interconnectedness of the web and use it to have a more profound influence on their followers.
9. The Giver by Lois Lowry: Leaders long for a fuller life
When the main character begins to get “memories” of the past, he sees that life was once more colorful and emotionally satisfying than it is in the society in which he lives. Leaving behind the bland “sameness” of his community, he leaves in search of a fuller life.
Leaders are not content with the status-quo. They want the best that life has to offer and will stop at nothing to acquire it for themselves and their followers.
10. Farenheight 451 by Ray Bradbury: Leaders value knowledge
Initially, the main character in this futuristic novel is a “fireman” — one who finds and burns books. When he sees the life-changing power of the knowledge within them, though, he becomes a fugitive in order to preserve them.
Leaders know the value of knowledge. They’re always reading, always learning, always sharpening their expertise.
11. The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Leaders fight to preserve what matters
In his post-apocalyptic world where danger lurks all around and humanity has become a horde of ruthless savages, a man journeys along a road with his son in order to bring him to a place of safety.
Leaders are not in it for themselves. They are in the fight for something greater — something more important, be it a cause, an idea, or a group of people. Whatever they fight for, they are willing to give their lives to preserve it.
12. Blindness by Jose Saramago: Leaders help the blind to see
In a world in which humanity is suddenly and inexplicably stricken with blindness, one woman retains her sight. In their blindness, people become violent and hostile. Instead of running away and hiding, the seeing woman helps the blind people who are victimized to safety.
Leaders don’t use their gifts for themselves. They use them for others. They see it as their responsibility to help those in need.
Okay, so perhaps these novels aren’t what you would typically think of when you think about something inspiring for a leader to read. Most of these are not the cheeriest of stories. They are stories of desperation, cruelty, inhumanity, and lost hope.
But, at times, we really do live in a dark world. Leaders deal with it. They face the resistance, rebel against it, and strive to overcome it.
What have you learned about leadership from the fiction that you’ve read? Have you read any on this list? Which do you identify with the most?
Featured image courtesy of Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ licensed via Creative Commons.