The Best Leadership Book Ever

On my website I recommend a number of books on leadership. They’re all good, but the best leadership book ever isn’t listed there.

The book that taught me the most about leadership is The Kitchen Madonna, by Rumer Godden.  (You can get it on Amazon here.)

At first glance—well, really, at tenth glance—The Kitchen Madonna bears absolutely no relation to a leadership book. Set in 1960s London, it’s a story about a nine-year-old boy named Gregory who decides to make a religious icon for his Ukrainian nanny. (What?)

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The book begins with Gregory and his little sister, Janet, discovering that Marta, their middle-aged nanny and housekeeper, is unhappy because their luxurious modern townhouse has no “good place.” By that, Marta means a nook in the kitchen with a bead- and fabric-covered portrait of the Madonna and Child (“a dressed Jesus-Mary,” as Janet calls it) and a glowing red-glass lamp. Marta is a refugee from Ukraine and an Eastern Orthodox Catholic; for her, the absence of a kitchen icon makes the house cold and lonely. Gregory is an introverted and undemonstrative boy, but he has respect for Marta. When she confesses her sadness, he tells her, “Don’t cry, Marta. I will get you an icon.”

The rest of the story shows us how Gregory, aided by Janet, gets Marta the icon. At first he assumes he’ll buy one, so he treks across London on a stormy day to Rostov’s, the grandest jeweler in London, taking his life savings of thirty shillings. After being laughed out of the establishment and later losing all his money through a hole in his raincoat, he is profoundly humiliated and decides to give up on the whole scheme.

Janet, however, thinks he shouldn’t be discouraged: he should simply make the icon himself. Gregory says this is ridiculous. How could he, a nine-year-old with no money, no resources, and no artistic experience, make a jewel-encrusted Russian icon? Janet responds with a prime piece of advice for cash-strapped entrepreneurs: 

“You can make it with think.”

Gregory gradually comes to see that he can indeed “make it with think.” But, he has to develop all sorts of leadership abilities in order to do it. He must envision the possibilities and make a plan. He must keep his employees (Janet) engaged. He must decide when to take a risk and when not to. He must make personal sacrifices and persevere through setbacks. And, most important, he must overcome his natural shyness in order to share his vision with strangers and enlist their support. To get the fabric for the icon, for example, he must go alone to his mother’s hat-maker—the intimidating, black-clad Madame Ginette—tell her exactly what he’s doing and why, and persuade her to give him some beautiful scraps.

When Gregory finally presents the icon to Marta, we’re reminded of how empathy for someone very different from oneself can be the spark for a vision, the seed of an innovation, and the impetus for a great achievement.

What unusual books have taught you something about leadership? What’s your best leadership book ever?

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About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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