Almost every December, we publish a list of our favorite books on leadership. To create that list, we draw from the best reads we assign to our executive doctoral students and from recommendations from top scholars and executives.
This year, though, we’re not feeling it.
After spending the better part of 2020 trying to make sense of what Covid-19 means for the future of leadership, we found ourselves wanting to escape into the creative world of fiction to give our minds a break from the pandemic.
While entertainment is an essential form of recreation, it can also be an exciting exploration into the many dimensions of leadership. How? By picking the right content and engaging with it thoughtfully. We start by sharing three favorites along with reflection questions, followed by a longer list of recommendations you can explore on your own.
2020’s top TV shows, movies, and novels for leadership development
Apple TV+ had an immediate hit on their hands with Ted Lasso, a bingeable television comedy about a college football coach, played by Jason Sudeikis, who is recruited to manage a British professional soccer team. On the surface, this is a familiar fish-out-of-water story. But what makes it exceptional is Lasso’s relentless belief in people and possibility, along with his Will Rogers-esque one-liners. (Example: “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.”)
Lasso’s persistent positivity would be like nails on a chalkboard if it weren’t for the suffering we see on his face as he battles lost games, difficult personalities, personal attacks, and broken relationships. The character is making an intentional choice to build an organizational culture that transcends today’s results in search of bigger wins.
Here are reflection questions for Ted Lasso viewers. Use these on your own, or as a Ted Lasso discussion guide for conversations at work.
- How do Ted and his boss Rebecca consider the needs of individuals alongside the needs of the organization? What is Ted’s approach to developing leaders, and what can we learn from this?
- How does Ted maintain his relentless optimism in the face of repeated loss, defeat, and criticism? How does he enable others to do the same?
- How much do you need to understand about the technical aspects of soccer (or any industry) in order to manage a team? How much of leadership is about tasks, and how much is about people?
- In the first season’s final episode, Lasso’s team attempts to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Where could you and your team take a similar approach in 2021?
Marvel’s superhero film Black Panther was one of the highest grossing films of 2018, but it wasn’t just an action-packed crowd pleaser. As one reviewer said, “It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world.”
The film’s star, Chadwick Boseman, died of colon cancer earlier this year. Rewatching Black Panther is a fitting tribute to the multifaceted on-screen representation he brought to his too short career. But rewatching is also a great way to dig into questions of leadership, culture, and what it means to be a citizen of the world.
Here are reflection questions to guide your Black Panther viewing:
- Early in the film, T’Challa (Boseman’s character) is certain he can handle a threatening situation on his own, only to need bailing out by his general. In what situations are you likely to be over-confident? What are your strategies for asking for help when it is needed? Would your next-in-command agree that you are good at this? If not, how can you improve?
- How would you describe the culture of Wakanda? How do the different tribes of Wakanda reflect different aspects of the culture? In your own organization, how is the culture reflected differently by different teams or groups?
- The people of Wakanda are divided over what obligation their country has to care for those outside its borders. What is the responsibility of your company to care for its community and stakeholders?
Daisy Jones & the Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Daisy Jones & the Six is a New York Times Bestseller about a fictional 1970s rock band’s rise to fame, followed by their sudden collapse. This is a fun, vacation-read novel that’s even better as an audiobook. But don’t let its charm fool you. The book actually raises great questions about charismatic leadership and how bands (or companies) can safely transition from startups to venerable institutions.
The band in the novel is fronted by Billy Dunne, a guitarist and songwriter with undeniable magnetic charisma. But what happens when a rising star takes the attention off Billy? Can the two superstars put aside their differences to do what’s best for the band?
A quick internet search will provide many book-club guides and discussion questions for Daisy Jones and the Six. But by thinking of the band as a founder-led start up, you can spark reflection for your leadership development.
- Was Billy a good team leader, or a bad one? Why? What does it take for a leader with a magnetic personality to succeed in the long term?
- Founders have a clear vision for their company, but they can’t succeed without teamwork; this allows other leaders to have influence on the company (or band’s) direction. Where did the band succeed at teamwork? Where did it struggle? How can you relate to this experience?
- Consider the arc of the band’s growth in popularity. How does it compare to development arcs you’ve experienced as part of an organization or a new team? What are the markers of progress and warning signs of danger, and how can you lead yourself and others through them?
Additional fiction recommendations for leadership development
Star Trek was among the most popular suggestions when we asked executives for examples of fiction that inspires leadership development. We’re not the only people to make this observation; here’s an article that explores leadership lessons from Star Trek.
Readers say Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Sower, the first in a series, raises important questions about inclusion and exclusion, and how communities approach change.
For fans of political dramas, The West Wing represents an ideal of ethical, good-intentioned leadership. Watch it to ask questions about compromise: where is it justified and mutually beneficial, and where does it threaten our morality?
Oscar-winner Parasite is a comedy thriller set in South Korea, about a family struggling in poverty. As the credits roll, ask yourself this question: Would the outcome have been different if the people with money and power had something more than a transactional relationship with their employees?
Other readers told us that James S.A. Corey’s book series, The Expanse, was must-read leadership material with a corresponding TV series. The series “makes a big point of highlighting different leadership styles and how those are often critical in expanding or constricting the options available,” said one fan.
Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott on The Office is a cringe-worthy lesson in how not to lead. Watch it mostly for laughs, but take a second to ask this question: What does he get right?
As many of us look ahead to holidays spent without the traditional family dinners or social gatherings with friends, settling in with a good book or television program can be a cozy alternative. This year turn your binge-watching and book reading into leadership development opportunities. Then tell us what stories and shows inspire you by sending us a DM on Twitter, @ValuesDriven.