As a book lover and a strategy enthusiast, I was surprised to find out that there is no comprehensive list yet of novels with a strategic component. Sure, many books have been written about business strategy, but these are mostly theoretical or non-fiction books. Although these books are fascinating to read, sometimes you feel like reading something less theoretical, like a novel. That’s why in this article I am going to provide a list of novels that strategy professionals or enthusiasts would enjoy. Strategy in a story form. I am talking about books which I recommend to read if you like strategic elements in a book, but at the same time don’t feel like reading the theoretical stuff. Fiction for the strategist.
In the list, I am focusing on strategy in a broad sense. Business strategy, but also topics such as strategic leadership, planning, vision setting, or even war strategy. From my experience, these are all topics that you would enjoy if you have a generic interest in strategy. I specifically focus on fiction, and not on the theoretical side of strategy. In some books, the strategic component is more obvious than in others. I’ll explain for each book why I think you would enjoy it as a strategy enthusiast, which strategic components it has and what you could possible learn from it. Let’s dive into the list right away! If you have other ideas, feel free to help me and other fellow strategy lovers and drop a comment with your recommendations. The strategy novels are listed in random order.
- 1. Animal Farm – George Orwell
- 2. The Goal – Eliyahu M. Goldratt
- 3. The Godfather – Mario Puzo
- 4. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
- 5. War and Peace – Lev Tolstoy
- 6. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) – George R.R. Martin
- 7. The Phoenix Project / The Unicorn Project – Gene Kim
- 8. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
- 9. Ender’s Game Series – Orson Scott Card
- 10. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid
- Strategy Movies
1. Animal Farm – George Orwell
This famous and brilliant novel can teach you a great deal about strategy. The novel from author George Orwell was published in 1949, when Stalin was still leader of the Soviet Union. The book is (unsurprisingly) about animals on a farm. These mistreated animals are collaborating to fight off the oppressor: the owner of the farm. The animals want freedom and prosperity. However, when the elite takes over the power, has the situation of the animals really improved from the old days, or are they as imprisoned as before?
Animal Farm teaches you about strategy because it has valuable lessons about strategic leadership. Is also teaches the reader about power and how to challenge strategic decisions. Other than the strategic business lessons, it is just a great read that doesn’t take a long time to finish. The book is quite thin.
2. The Goal – Eliyahu M. Goldratt
Perhaps the number #2 strategy novel on this list is a more obvious choice: The Goal is written as a business novel, focused on management. Published in 1984, the story involves a plant manager who desperately wants to improve the performance of his company. While trying to do that, the manager has to take several strategic decisions.
This novel teaches you about several aspects of strategy. While the main lessons in the book are focused on operations management, it also has important lessons for strategists. Additionally, I believed that as a strategic professional, it is essential to have a good understanding of operational management as well. Although a business novel might sound dull to you, it is actually written in exiting style that makes you feel like you’re reading a thriller.
3. The Godfather – Mario Puzo
Chances are you’ve watched the movie, but have you also read the book The Godfather? While the movie was released in 1971, the book was published only two years before in 1969. Not only does the book provide much more detail than the movie, it also contains lessons about strategy.
If you don’t know already, The Godfather is a mafia boss of the Corleone family in New York. It requires a lot of strategy acumen to bring a mafia family to the top, and to keep the empire ahead of all other families. Don Vito Corleone knows how to gain a competitive advantage over his competitors: the Tattaglia, Barzini, Cuneo, and Stracci families. I wouldn’t advocate any criminal activity, buy Don Corleone definitely shows many cases of strong strategic management.
4. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote. You’ve probably heard of the story of a man fighting against windmills, buy many people have never taken the time to actually read the novel. The official Spanish title is El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, which translates to The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote.
You’re probably wondering what this old novel has in common with business strategy and why you should read it as a strategist. Don Quixote can teach you several things about strategic leadership. The goal of most business strategies is to gain a competitive advantage by being different from competitors. Don Quixote teaches you to dare to think different. To try to let go of established views and instead think outside the box. As a strategist, you want to come up with ideas and analyses that others can’t think of. That’s what Don Quixote is very good at.
5. War and Peace – Lev Tolstoy
Another classic on the list is War and Peace from legendary Russian writer Lev (Leo) Tolstoy. This novel is about several Russian aristocratic families and describes their lives during the (Napoleonic) wars against France.
OK, everyone agrees that War and Peace is a fantastic piece of literature, but why is it interesting from a strategic perspective? For me, it provides lessons about strategic leadership, vision setting and decision making. To be more specific, it questions the often heroic stories about visionaries. I think it’s fascination to apply these insights to the business world, for example to praised visionaries of large companies.
6. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) – George R.R. Martin
While most of you know the beautifully made HBO television show, fewer people will have read the fascinating book series, written by American writer George R.R. Martin. For the few who have been living under a rock: the story is about fictional world Westeros, a continent in a mythical medieval world in which several kingdoms and families fight each other.
The book series is fantastic for strategists. The whole book essentially revolves around rivals trying to outsmart each other by gaining a competitive advantage. Many crucial strategic decisions are made. Some right, some wrong. Not only that, there are many leaders in the story with a variety of leadership styles. It teaches you that there is more than one strategic leadership style that can be successful.
7. The Phoenix Project / The Unicorn Project – Gene Kim
The second business novel in the list is The Phoenix Project (and the sequel: The Unicorn Project). The subtitle is A Novel about It, Devops, and Helping Your Business Win, and this is exactly what the book is about.
For strategists in the 2020s, it is essential to have a solid understanding of IT and software development. That’s why I would highly recommend any strategic professional to read this entertaining business novel. In addition, the novel contains element of strategic decision making, such as insourcing/outsourcing, and ways to turn around an underperforming business.
8. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
From a business novel, we go to another literary classic. Catch-22, published in 1961, is a satirical novel about antihero Captain John Yossarian set during World War II. Yossarian is stationed on an Italian island, where he is surrounded by many absurd characters.
What has this satirical novel to do with business strategy, you ask? I’ll explain. Heller writes exceptionally about management and organization, and about (bad) decisions made by top management. So the book is interesting for the whole business world and not only for strategy professionals. The characters is the book are relatable for everyone working at any organization. I’d be surprised if you don’t know any people at your company who show similarities to the absurd characters in Catch-22.
Wikipedia defines a Catch 22 as below:
Can you think of a business situation in which a catch-22 could occur? Perhaps you can think of something after reading the book!
9. Ender’s Game Series – Orson Scott Card
After George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the Ender’s Game Series is the second fantasy / science fiction books series on the list. Currently the series exists of 18 (!) novels, the first one being released in 1985 and the last one in 2019. It is a highly successful and popular science fiction series. The series is set in a future in which mankind is threatened by aliens. Andrew “Ender” Wiggins is the protagonist who is supposed to protect the earth.
What makes this book so interesting for strategists, is its extensive coverage of military strategy. In my view, many military strategies have their equivalent in business strategy as well. In both areas of strategy, you’re trying to win against your rivals by gaining a competitive advantage. Additionally, the series is also fascinating from a strategic leadership perspective. The Ender’s Game books can rightfully be called strategy novels. Obviously, it’d help for you to like science-fiction to be able to enjoy this book.
10. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a book about a poor, rural boy who becomes a wealthy business man. At the same time, the book (published in 2013) follows this nameless man’s pursuit of a pretty girl. The interesting aspect is that the book has the style of a self-help book, without actually being one.
For business strategists, the book is enjoyable to read because you follow a man on his journey to business success. Not only that, the book also teaches you some important business and life lessons. This novel is fantastically written, clever and original and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Hopefully this subjective list of ‘strategy novels’ has given you some inspiration. Are you more interested in movies than books? Check out my article on strategy movies here: Strategy Movies