If I had to prescribe one novel for all leaders to read, it would probably be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
If you’re picturing the Hollywood movies of the same name, you’ll think it an odd choice. But Shelley’s book bears little relation to the films. Her “monster” (who is not named Frankenstein, by the way; that’s the name of the scientist who creates him) is an articulate and sensitive creature who wants to love and be loved. He teaches himself to speak, read, and write by observing a human family and, after waiting patiently for the right time, tries to make friends with them. It’s only when his overtures are viciously and violently rejected that he realizes the hopelessness of his situation and vows revenge on his creator.
Dr. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is merely a coward. Having brought his creature to life, he decides on the spot that he is a “fiend” and a “wretch,” abandons him, and flees the country. Perhaps like some leaders you know, Frankenstein talks big and has big ambitions, but when the time comes to take responsibility for what he has put in motion, he’s not up to it. When he finds he can’t control the thing he’s brought to life, he has a choice: to try to understand and care for it anyway, or to shun it and hope it disappears. He chooses the latter.
When Frankenstein meets up with his creation a year later, he is surprised to find that what the creature desires above all is not to kill him, but to tell his story. The “fiend” importunes Frankenstein with the following words, a cry from the heart for understanding:
“Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me. Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me. The guilty are allowed by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature … Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me, and then, if you can, and if you will, destroy the work of your hands.”
–Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley