Why Leaders Should Read More Fiction

There is more “leadership development” value in a single compelling work of fiction than there is in the sum total of the non-fiction “how to lead” library. Here’s why:

Great fiction is great storytelling. Stories activate our brains creating connection and activating emotional responsiveness. If you are the leader of a cause worth fighting for you need people to be emotionally involved in making it a reality. If you tell them a clear and compelling story about where you are going and why you have a great shot at ensuring their commitment. Reading fiction will remind you what clear and compelling stories look, sound and feel like. Noticing your own emotional response will remind you just how powerful they can be.

Great fiction opens up imagination. Fiction writers transport us to places we have never imagined, they put us in situations we’ve never experienced and they introduce us to people we’ve never known. They challenge us to expand our perspective on what is possible all the while reflecting back to us the hilarity and tragedy that is our shared experience. The author’s expression of imagination challenges us to confront our radical addiction to the status quo, reminding us that so much more is possible in ourselves, our teams, our products and our enterprise if we are able to step outside of our known experience.

Great fiction normalizes our existence. It makes the universal particular and reminds us that the particular is universal. It deepens our empathy by reminding us of our common challenges, aspirations, hopes, dreams, strengths and struggles. We attach to a great story because we are reading about ourselves. And just as we crave our unique identity (standing out) we also crave connection and acceptance (fitting in). Good fiction so often centers on the tension between these competing dynamics just as good leaders regularly deepen their personal awareness of how those needs play out in themselves and in the people they lead.

Great fiction holds us in reality. It speaks directly to the universal truths of our shared existence, reminding us that there is no structure, organization or alignment we can create that will deter what is inevitable about the human experience. Great leadership is about accepting those realities and enlarging our capacity to be effective in our anticipation of them rather than blind in our denial.

Some recommendations for your consideration:

Literally, any short story collection by Wendell BerryGeorge Saunders or Alice Munro.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Little Children and Election by  Tom Perrotta

The Frank Bascombe Trilogy by Richard Ford

The Road and the Border Trilogy by  Cormac McCarthy

(And finally, because I can’t resist the temptation to recommend at least one non-fiction author, I offer you Alain de BottonTruly, anything of his will make you smarter and more expansive in your perception and interpretation of people, places and things. All pretty good leadership qualities in my humble opinion.)

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