Rajeshwar Upadhyaya


A Leader’s Reading List for Character Building

Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

pic reading list

“Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them.”
Every leader has a repertoire of responses and approaches that he accumulates through experience. However rich one’s own experience is, it will be limited by the constrictions that the physical world levies. It possibly would not throw out responses totally unrelated to the existing repertoire. In fact, it is this experience which urges the leader to move on the path of past success, believing it to be the only way forward, opening him up to derailment.
So, how can a leader add new responses to accommodate not only the changes he can foresee, but also the changes he cannot foresee? What can a leader do?
He can grow as an individual. He can gain knowledge. He can expand his weltanschauung. He can be wise.
Take for example, Shoaib Sultan Khan. He is the pioneer of an integrated rural development approach in South Asia. He came up with an answer to the abysmal rural poverty in the region. It is interesting that the origin of this solution could be traced back to the 19th century Europe. He implemented three principles which the German mayor, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, had used to free his principality from poverty.
Yes, he was introduced to this approach by his legendary mentor Akhtar Hameed Khan. But Akhtar Hameed Khan was introduced to it by the books that documented Raiffeisen’s work.
Louis L’Amour, the American novelist who made western novels popular, said, “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offers an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.
While the world is changing very fast, books remain the best bet for gaining diverse perspectives, insights, responses and approaches. They enable you to surpass physical barriers and experience something totally divorced from your context
But are our leaders reading enough?
I remember a journalist telling me about a rather funny incident, which unfurled during an interview. He was interviewing the CEO of a large Indian organisation and happened to see the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi on the CEO’s table. Assuming it would merit a pertinent answer, he asked the CEO, “How has Gandhian thought influence your approach to leadership?” Only to receive a dismal reply with a sheepish grin, “I haven’t really read it.”
If a leader cannot take some time out to benefit from the pool of wisdom sitting on his table; he needs to rethink his priorities.
Another problem is the question of relevance. I often receive mails from well-meaning individuals asking me to refer some good reading material to them on leadership that is relevant to their industry! Anything beyond that seems like a waste of time to them.
While I appreciate their intent, this question of relevance narrows the world down again to their own context. This is a not a very rational approach. Leadership is not a specialist’s job. It is not about god-like expertise in one specific domain. It is a generalist’s job. It is about making decisions while considering variables that operate in a highly volatile external environment. Therefore, it is not only enough to know how to dig oil wells. It is important to know how to get the oil wells dug with the available resources in best possible way. And if the wisdom rooted in the context of the oil and gas industry is enough to ensure that, we are living in utopia.
However, the question of return on investment on the time spent on reading books not directly relevant to one’s work is not a bad one. To that end, consider reading like planting a tree. With little but consistent care, it can give you a number of benefits in the future. We must remember that knowledge is never wasted. The more you manage to amass it, the more insightful and wise you become.
A leader, who’s well-read, will be able to understand his people better, owing to his knowledge of psychology. A leader needs to know philosophy to be able to draw a line and imbibe an ethical approach. He needs to read about history to learn from the examples of success and failure of the leaders before him. Myths are the collective wisdom of humanity, which has stood the test of time, and an access to them would open a leader to wisdom accumulated across centuries. It’s interesting to draw parallels between the past and present, and to learn that some phenomena are universal. They are beyond the fetters of times.
I recommend that those who aspire to be successful and longstanding leaders should follow a comprehensive reading list. The more diverse the reading list, the better it is. The leader who knows better, succeeds better.
My strong recommendation for this list would be Shakespeare’s work. Why Shakespeare? Why text that is upwards of 400 years old? The hopes, despair, aspirations, trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows are they very stuff we humans are made of, and these are timeless. Shakespeare’s plays operate at a level of depth and truth that allows for an anatomical understanding of personalities and in return, of us. The purpose therefore, is to see ourselves in the characters and situations that we analyse. A lasting text is the one that lends itself to interpretation in changing times. It is conceived and written from a level of psychological truth that abides – that is unfaltering over time. The lesson from Shakespeare primarily is ethical as against moral, actualisation as against inspirational.
I would advise one to read the entire body of his work. However, reading “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Julius Caesar”, and “Tempest” is a must for any leader worth his salt.


Hamlet’s ability is that he sees too much, understands too much, empathises too much, analyses too much and consequently is paralysed by his own intelligence. The lessons from Hamlet are, therefore, clearly in the plea for task oriented, goal focused activity, avoiding emotional and intellectual excesses — in pursuit of the larger good—stake-holder value in this case. Macbeth, on the other hand is a sad testament to those unprepared for leadership – position of power brings out their worst – their weaknesses and not their strengths. In Julius Caesar, the play turns direction after the assassination of Caesar at a funeral speech. One speech. Just one. And the seeds of the tragic death of all the conspirators including Brutus and Cassius are sown. The speech turns out to be the most powerful character-maker, brand-builder in the play. It highlights a direct and meaningful ability to converse, speak and persuade as the most powerful way to build one’s personal brand as a leader. And Tempest is one of the most insightful depictions of colonisation and how it unfolds. It would attract South Asian readers specially because it has parallels to the social and psychological schizophrenia colonisation has left us with.
Mythology presents a similar case. It is an important genre, as it represents our heritage. It shows where we came from, what were our beliefs. The myth of King Oedipus is a surprisingly potent exhibition of human motives. Oedipal dynamics formed the foundation of the Freudian school of psychoanalysis. Later on, Otto Rank and his other students fell apart owing to differences in opinion. Yet, nothing’s taken away from the fact that mythology has a lot to do with human psychology. In fact, mythology is a keener reflector of human nature. Mythology is like a perpetual background on which a civilisation’s drama unfolds. As for those who do not have a comprehensive mythology, why, they shall create one. Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies” explains what new myths are and how they are forming the basics of the modern man, and how he is being ’mediated’ in spite of himself. The media forms new myths, and their potency can be understood in the light of how the traditional myths are civilisationally apart.
 “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” – Bacon



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