How Reading Literary Fiction Can Make You a Better Leader

Plenty of books can give you advice about how to network, set goals, and manage your time – but to build up your core skills you should also check out some literary fiction. While it may seem like curling up with a high-quality novel or sophisticated short story could only be a distraction from your work, it can in fact help you lead effectively in almost any field. This is because literary fiction provides you with a meaningful simulation of real life.

Fiction as Simulation

Consider just a few examples of how simulations are used today:

  • Pilots use flight simulators to learn how to fly.
  • Doctors perform simulated operations before performing real ones.
  • Many business management programs require students to complete a simulation of running a business.

Why do such diverse fields value simulations so highly? Because simulations, by being similar to reality (sometimes with a few tweaks to get a point across), give people the chance to hone real-world skills – yet at the same time, precisely because they are not part of the real world, simulations provide a safe and low-pressure environment in which to practice.

Reading literary fiction, which focuses on character-driven narratives and psychological exploration, is a way to engage with a simulation of real life. This simulation allows you to:

  • Examine characters as they are in multiple contexts
  • See things from your protagonist’s point of view at the same time as you get to observe the protagonist as an outsider
  • View given situations from multiple characters’ perspectives.

Any leader needs to have a robust understanding of human psychology, simply because any leader needs to be able to influence and motivate people. The enhanced understanding you gain from literary fiction will make you a stronger leader.

Empathy

Why empathy is important for leaders: Empathy, or the ability to understand the experiences and emotions of others, is a core leadership skill. The deeper your understanding of the people you’re leading, the stronger your relationship with them will be. You will be better able to motivate, earn the loyalty of, and assign work to people who feel that your empathize with them.

How literary fiction helps you develop it: Fictional narratives offer holistic perspectives that help you understand people in a multidimensional way. Researchers Emanuele Castano and David Kidd of the New School, among others, have discovered evidence that reading about fictional characters with complex motivations can improve people’s abilities to infer and explain others’ thoughts and feelings.

Self-Improvement

Why self-improvement is important for leaders: In order to be your best, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and be able to work on them both. This will make you better able to get your job done, and it will also model constant growth for your team.

How literary fiction helps you develop it: For many people, anything that suggests that they change themselves may feel threatening. However, as you read and become absorbed in a story, you will be able to learn lessons through the character, which will make it easier to handle later on if you realize you’re making similar mistakes. Science says so!

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the main characters’ preconceived notions of themselves and of each other prevent them (for a while) from forming what ends up being a rewarding relationship for both sides. Read it, and when someone suggests collaborating on a professional project, say, the wisdom you’ve acquired from reading can help you make the right decision in real life. Image source: christianentertainmentnews.com

Systems Thinking

Why systems thinking is important for leaders: Systems thinking is the study of elements' relationships with each other and the structures in which they interact. So, for instance, someone studying an ecosystem would examine how different organisms in the ecosystem interact with each other and how the whole ecosystem is affected by pollution. Someone working in supply chain management might study the relationships among raw materials, production costs, customer satisfaction, profits, and pressure on profits. A broad range of professional fields increasingly value systems thinking.

How literary fiction helps you develop it: One way to get used to thinking about systems with lots of moving parts is to read a novel in which the characters, settings, and plot events affect each other in complicated ways. Simulating the way events, interactions, and individuals are interwoven – in a way that lets you examine and analyze each factor and its effects far more thoroughly and makes you far more omniscient than you could ever be in real life – is a great way to get used to systems thinking.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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